Monument to My Ego

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Conceptualizing three-dimensional space has always been an issue for me. While I’m somewhat good at designing things in two dimensions — the graphical elements of my website and my book covers, for example — my brain has always had a very difficult time wrapping itself around the most basic elements of three-dimensional design. Anyone who has seen my laughable attempts at drawing can tell you just how messed up my head is in that regard. I have depth perception and two good eyes; I just seem unable to make the leap from the visual inputs my brain gets to producing something that looks like it came out of our universe.

One aspect of three-dimensional space that’s always fascinated me, though, is ways to maximize it. Objects that can be used for multiple purposes intrigue me, and even though I’m not good at trying to come up with my own ways of maximizing efficiency, I still devote a good deal of brainpower to that pursuit. I think it comes from my love of puzzles, especially when I was younger, and things like Russian nesting dolls still grab my attention to this day.

Maximizing a limited amount of living space is something that’s been on my mind for decades, long before “tiny houses” became the phenomenon that they are now. I can remember seeing documentaries about New York City in the 1990’s and marveling at how apartment-dwellers there would find ways to get around the very small apartments (with very high rents) they had to live in. I’ve never needed to use any of the tips and tricks they came up with, but I definitely see echoes of them in the viral videos about tiny houses that are so popular these days.

I’ve been examining my own use of space in recent years, and with technological innovations making it easier to pack a lot into a small amount of space — flat-screen televisions and computer monitors, desktop computers the size of a box of ice cream bars, tablet computers that can take the place of dozens of older tools — it’s certainly a lot more feasible to live in a smaller space these days. When I look at the actual boxed space I move around in on any given (non-work) day, I definitely don’t need that much space for the things I do in a typical twenty-four hours. I might even be able to live in one of those tiny houses and handle nearly all of my normal daily activities.

Unfortunately, although I don’t move around in a lot of space for most of what I do, I still need a lot of space, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I have a very large amount of paperwork that I need to keep possession of, including old student writing portfolios and rough drafts of my writing. That’s a lot of paper, and it’s only going to get bigger as the years pass, but that’s just one of the things you have to deal with as an English teacher and a writer. Besides, that’s the kind of stuff that you can stash in a storage locker, because the chances of needing any of it on an hour’s notice is remote at best.

My book collection, however, is another matter entirely. Whether I’m adding my latest purchases to it, or tearing into an old purchase for research purposes, I do need ready access to my books. I don’t want to get into any stupid contest about who owns the most books, and I certainly have enough friends whose book collections dwarf my own, but I definitely own more books than most people these days, and that collection takes up an amount of space that makes the very idea of me being able to live in a tiny house laughable.

With modern technology, though, has come the rise of ebooks, and the ability to hold libraries’ worth of texts in the palm of your hand. I didn’t get a dedicated ebook reader when they first came out, just because I wasn’t sure if the technology was going to last, but it’s been almost five years since I bought my first tablet. I’ve bought more than a few ebooks in that time, and they definitely have their advantages (especially when it comes to independent authors, like me, reaching a far wider audience than was ever possible before). As a reader, though, I just don’t see myself ever making the switch over to using my tablet as my primary reading device.

Part of that may just be the way I was raised, and how I’m used to the feel and weight (and smell) of a printed book in my hands, but lots of people have already written about those concerns. For book collectors like me, there’s also the issue of the cost it takes to buy ebooks of physical books we already own, which can not only be highly prohibitive, but also reduces the amount of money we have to spend on new texts, which is anathema to many of us. (Even when we have a huge backlog of books we’ve bought but have yet to read — yes, I am more than a little guilty of this — that temptation to keep getting more books to read just won’t go away.) This doesn’t even get into the issue of books that haven’t been made available in ebook form yet, or collectibles and rare copies, and all that wonderful stuff.

There’s also the strange phenomenon of new paperbacks often being less expensive than the ebook of the same text. More than once, especially in the past few months, I’ve wound up buying a paperback when I would have been satisfied with an ebook, all because the paperback cost less. For all the talk about the cost savings of electronic delivery and storage, lots of retailers still price books so that the ebook isn’t the cheapest option out there. For penny-pinchers like me, that difference can add up in a hurry if you buy a lot of books in a year.

More to the point, though, scrolling through my ebook collections on my tablet just doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as looking at my physical collection of books, all those shelves packed so concisely. Eyeing each shelf one by one, thinking about how I’ve read each of those books (and how much I can remember about each one), fills me with a pretty darn good feeling. Getting through that many books is an accomplishment, after all, and as I continue to write new texts influenced by all the texts I’ve already read, I can say with total certainty that I’ve made good use of all those books.

The thing is, that’s just part of the picture. I can’t deny that my book collection also assuages my ego, that all the good feelings I get from looking at all of my books aren’t entirely beneficial. I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised, or some of the bad people I’ve been around in more recent years (who prove that you can read far more books than I have and still be a total idiot), but I can definitely feel my ego being soothed as I look at my book collection, and given how often I claim that I do my best to keep my ego in check, that’s not a good feeling to have.

The problem can be summed up by my answer to one of the questions that’s been going around bibliophile circles as of late: If I fell into a lot of money, would I buy a whole lot of ebooks that I could carry with me everywhere I go, or a whole lot of physical books that would mostly have to be kept in my bedroom? Even with as many books as I’d like to buy — I don’t know if I’ll ever have “enough books,” especially since the very thought of that phrase makes me shudder — I would still rather have the physical books, and not just because I prefer the feel and heft of them. I want to build my own library, a physical altar to the amount of reading I have done, all the efforts I’ve made to learn as much as I can.

Even if I’ve used that knowledge to  improve the lives of others, even if I have good reasons to maintain a physical library, that’s still not a good desire to have. I may need to read more about how to rid myself of that desire, but I’m not sure if any of the books I already own can help me with that. If you think you see what this is going to lead to, that’s only because you’re right. Sigh.

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