Along about 100 years ago, a traveling salesman spotted a likely mark

Along about 100 years ago, a traveling salesman spotted a likely mark among the residents of a Butte, Montana, boarding house. You’re a fine, upstanding young fellow, he told his prospect: ambitious, bent on bettering yourself, a cut above the average; what you need is a fine oak-veneer, glass-fronted sectional bookcase to protect your reading matter.

My father was interested, but he didn’t have that many books to protect yet: the 1909 edition of The Geologist’s Handbook, a copy of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, and the collected lectures of Ralph G. Ingersoll, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward . . . Not a problem, said the salesman, I just happen to have a 20-volume set of the world’s greatest books (abridged edition).

Dad was hooked. He even sprang for a deluxe set of the works of Charles Dickens with the original illustrations. Keeping up with the monthly payments on a miner’s wages wasn’t easy, but like the salesman said, it was an investment that would last a lifetime.

It did, and then some. That bookcase and its contents traveled with my father for the next 70 years or so. He read and reread the Dickens set almost until the day he died, quoting his favorite passages aloud every time he hit them. In my childhood, home—the Canadian woods, the Peruvian altiplano, suburban Spokane—centered on those books, that bookcase: You couldn’t imagine the living room without them.

I finally gave away the bookcase a year or so ago. The books I still have—up in the attic. It’s not that I am a constant reader of Dickens; I just can’t imagine throwing away 30-some beautifully bound, beautifully printed books. And throw them away I would have to do, because no one—no one I’ve asked anyway, and I’ve asked many—has any use for them. Shorn of their sentimental value, they’re just 50 pounds of stuff to take up room that no one has to spare.

I’d be willing to bet that almost anyone over the age of, say, 40 is faced with the same problem. Books acquired in youth or inherited from family, precious for the emotions and memories they evoke but so much wastepaper to anyone else—they pile up around the house, unused, often unusable, reproaching us if we think of disposing of them, but occupying space and of no earthly use to anyone.

Just try leaving a carton of free books by the curb of your home; they’ll be mildewing in the rain for months. Donate them to Goodwill instead, if you want that fig leaf before the landfill. Second-hand bookstores are almost extinct, and the market for used CDs or DVDs is fast following the fate of VHS. Apart from vinyl collectors, millennials aren’t buying such stuff. They live on the cloud, with a few archived favorites on their laptops and phones.

And, unlike their elders (including me), they’ll likely never be able to afford a Seattle home capacious enough to house what we once called a library or study. Which makes me sad, and this speaks to a different generation’s social habits, since being invited to someone’s home for drinks or dinner once meant perusing their favorite books and music. You could run your finger along those spines, see their tastes and preferences, and know your friends a little better (and vice versa).

Now the library’s become more private—contained within iTunes or Kindle. Friends can cite their faves on Facebook, but that’s not the same as opening a book at a dinner party to share a remarkable quote or dropping the needle on a favorite track so all can listen. A home library was not just a resource, but a proud testimony to the life and character of its owners.

But who has room for a personal shrine now? Not me, and I’ve become less and less nostalgic about a medium that originated with the Sumerians circa 3,000 B.C. When they wanted to take permanent note of something, they used a sharpened reed to poke wedge-marks in a piece of clay, then baked the clay. This information medium had its limitations, but managed to last until about the birth of Christ.

From thence, information technology marches on: papyrus, vellum, Gutenberg . . . Bezos! Suddenly we’re in a radically different information sphere, with digital downloads, iPads, Kindles, and the cloud. Books are still marvelously efficient devices for delivering certain kinds of information, but electronic media do the same job for a fraction of the cost. Twenty years ago, pre-Amazon, we could hardly have dreamed of the searching, editing, indexing, commenting, and statistical analysis tools made possible by this form of reading and storage.

None of which you can do with a physical book. It’s no wonder that baby boomers with their cherished high-school copies of The Catcher in the Rye are now struggling with the save/discard dilemma of downsizing into one-level condos and retirement homes.

If I’m ever moved to reread Bleak House, I’ll probably head up to the attic and bring down Dad’s copy (two volumes, gilded page edges). But maybe not. Last year I finally got round to Jane Eyre, but I read it free, downloaded to my iPad. But then a friend loaned me a novel by one of her favorite authors, Margaret Drabble. I was knocked out by The Peppered Moth  ; what else of hers should I read? The Needle’s Eye, my friend told me, but she didn’t have a copy. So I resentfully paid my $11.99 plus tax to Amazon.

And I was thereby, like my father, though I didn’t know it yet, hooked. I might have held out, read something else by Drabble that my friend did own; but it was agreeable to get exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it. And after all, I wouldn’t think twice about spending as much on a bottle of wine for dinner, would I?

The slippery slope. Soon I was one-clicking stuff that I would never have paid full price for, generic mystery or fantasy books; I used to wait years for the “mass-market” paperback editions to arrive. Once I was willing to spend $50 for the DVD edition of some obscure baroque opera production. Now I just stream it with a flat-rate subscription to Rhapsody or Rdio.

All the while, I began to feel guilty about Dickens and the other, lesser authors residing in my attic. Up there were dozens—no, hundreds—of (mostly) paperbacks moldering quietly in their cardboard cartons. What was I saving them for? No good answer; and slowly I began to adopt the long view about media—the very long view, in fact. The more presentable ones will end up at one of the Seattle Public Library’s annual sales. Most are destined for the free rack at a local hospital. CDs and DVDs? Value Village.

But I haven’t given up yet on the Dickens. Anybody looking for a nice set of the almost-complete works? (Hard Times somehow went missing sometime in the past 100 years.)