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Klagge: Me and my books

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By James C. Klagge

Klagge is a professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech and a resident of Blacksburg.

Why do I have so many books and CDs? At various times I might have thought that my son, Nick, or future grandchildren, or a library, or a philosophy department would want them, but I realize that’s pretty clearly false.

Nick is an avid reader, but he has been divesting himself of physical books and using the library and getting e-books instead. And he long ago converted from CDs to mp3s. (Of course, tons of his mp3s were ripped from my extensive CD collection.)

What do all these books and CDs mean to me? After I’ve read something, why don’t I just get rid of it? I do, if I didn’t care for it. And I often pass on, to church or friends, books that I don’t need to hold onto and think others might appreciate.

I see what I buy and keep as a representation of my values — moral and aesthetic. My books and CDs are a physical representation of what I stand for. Not only is it symbolic, but sometimes also financial. I have almost all of Wendell Berry’s books not only because I like his ideas, but because I like supporting him as a writer and person. Other living authors whom I see similarly are Sharyn McCrumb (at least her Ballad novels), Oliver Sacks, and maybe Marcus Borg. But there are writers who are dead — Gabriel García Márquez, Bohumil Hrabal, Henri Nouwen — whom I similarly invest in, so I guess the matter is often just symbolic.

It matters to me that people can look at my book and CD shelves and see what I care about. Nick and I once talked about the fact that if all your music is on iTunes, no one can see what you like in music. He pointed out, this was about eight years ago, that iTunes has a function that allows you to see the iTunes libraries of nearby users.

In fact, when he was in college, someone from the college radio station contacted him because they were impressed with his collection of blues (which, of course, derived from my CD blues collection).

I’m not sure if iTunes still has that feature, but even so, I don’t see us perusing each other’s iPods or e-book collections. You might say we know less about each other.

One might point out that what you own and physically display is just a sort of lip-service — available to those who can afford it, and indicating nothing about what you’ve absorbed. Think of those leather-bound sets of classics you can buy for the sake of displaying them.

In fact, Goodreads.com does serve the purpose of allowing you to list the books you own, plan to read, have read, and even share reviews of them. So in a virtual way I am able to display what I read, and with the reviews I write I share more about myself from my reading. (Of course, it is only some of us who like to write book reports.) Spotify.com also allows users to advertise what they have been listening to on Facebook and discuss it.

It disappoints me when people visit our house and don’t look at my books and CDs. I would say that if I am visiting someone’s house I almost always check out the books and records (if they are easily accessible). Perhaps having lots of physical books and CDs is a statement that these things are so important to me that I allocate space in my house — make room for them (and buy shelves for them). It surprises me how rare that is now.

So, what do I make of Nick, who strives to minimize physically owned books through the use of the library and e-books? He certainly values books and reading as much as I do. He lists as many books on Goodreads as I do, and he is just as dutiful about writing his book reports. But he doesn’t “invest” in authors, or themes. He doesn’t strive to have everything by a favorite author, even if he does strive to read it (Haruki Murakami, Stanley Hauerwas, Andy Runton).

What is the point of having everything (or several things) by an author — beyond reading? It says something. But is the cost of saying something in this way worth the investment — instead of, say, putting the money toward retirement, or a good charity? Well, it’s a value statement. That’s part of what it means to me to care about books.

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