Soon There Will Be No More Shelves of Books and CDs

The loss of this visible manifestation of who we are may be of little consequence to most people, but it's a loss worth noting.
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I was sitting at home looking at the shelves that store our books, CDs, videotapes and DVDs, and realized how much of a story they tell. If you look at our books, you can get a pretty good idea of what we studied in school, our hobbies, interests and even our political beliefs. If you gaze at our CD and DVD collection, you'll know something about our tastes in movies and music.

I find the same is true when I visit other people's homes. I don't snoop around, but I sometimes do glance at their books and CDs to see what we might have in common.

But none of this will be possible in the future as we transition from physical to digital media. Already, I have scores of books in my Amazon library, which are only visible if you have access to my Kindle or iPad. Anyone with access to my Roku or tablet can peruse the movies and TV shows I've purchased in the past few years, but not a single one is visible on our shelves.

The loss of this visible manifestation of who we are may be of little consequence to most people, but it's a loss worth noting.

While there won't be an imminent demise of books, CDs and DVDs, they are all endangered species. I'm pretty sure that physical books will continue to be printed for the foreseeable future, but they'll eventually become expensive luxury items. If for no other reason than cost, by the end of this decade most of us will be reading almost exclusively on screens.

Not all bad

That's far from all bad. For the most part, I prefer e-books to paper books. For one thing, they reduce the load I need to carry when I travel. As I wing my way around the world, I have dozens of books at my disposal either in the "cloud" (on Amazon's servers, available to download at any time) or on the devices themselves. I keep books on my iPad, on my Amazon Kindle Fire and even on my smartphone. While I prefer reading on larger screens, I do occasionally read a chapter or two on my phone if I find myself waiting for an appointment or a plane. I also like how easy it is to order books. One time, when I was waiting for a flight, I got into a discussion with someone about a physical book he was reading after the cover piqued my interest, so I downloaded it on the spot and read it on the flight. Good thing he was reading a physical book. It's pretty hard to know what someone's reading on an e-reader or a tablet.

One thing that would help the transition to digital books is a common standard. I hate that I have to use different devices or apps for different books. I don't have one shelf for books that I bought at my local Kepler's bookstore and another for books I picked up at Borders before it closed. Why should I need separate readers or devices for books from Amazon and Barnes & Noble?

I'm also hoping that it will become easier to lend or give away books. Amazon does let people loan out some Kindle books for a period of 14 days, but not all books are lendable and books can only be loaned out once. At least you don't have to bug the person to return them. It happens automatically. Also, most public libraries can lend out e-books but -- just as with physical books -- there is a limited number of copies.

I definitely don't miss CDs. It's so much easier to play a song or an album on a digital device than to fetch a physical disc. Ditto for DVDs. It's much easier to call up a movie from a screen than having to manage plastic discs.

And while I have no nostalgia for videocassettes or audiocassettes, I do have a soft spot for LPs. Some say they have a warmer sound, but what I mostly like about LPs is the covers and the ritual of carefully placing them on the turntable and lovingly returning them to their sleeves. And there is nothing like flipping through those old album covers for a trip down memory lane. A few years ago, my son bought my wife a turntable with a USB port that plays records and allows you to copy them to a PC, but I have no desire to make digital copies of my LPs. It kind of defeats the purpose.

I do think there will come a time when we won't easily be able judge a friend by his book covers, but somehow society will endure. Maybe we'll have to settle for talking to people to find out what interests them or, perhaps, someone will create "an app for that."

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

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