In the age of the e-book, what will happen to bookshelves? How will we decorate our apartments? How will we judge our prospective partners?
I am living in the aftermath of a move, where as usual the books have been the most obstructive and expensive and dustiest element. They have been moved from student room to disastrous relationship to shared house to storage locker for 20 years now, and they have not suffered, indeed they have proliferated as they migrated, like a great nomadic herd. Many of them have traversed this vast country more than once; some have crossed an ocean. My books thrive on upheaval: It causes them to spawn.
Before every move, I perform a heartbreaking yet necessary cull. I isolate the weakest - the review copies of self-help books, the self-published novels sent to me with challenging notes, the anthologies compiled for noble charities - and I drive them to a local library or Goodwill with a guilty feeling. (Fiction is more likely to survive this cull than non-fiction, because it is less topical: All the books I bought in the nineties on "computer culture" are uninteresting except to a specialist in failed prognostications. But a novel from the nineties with a computer in it is fascinating.)
And still on every move there are 10 more boxes than there were before, and new Ikea shelves to be assembled and found space for. When I am grown up, I will have a carpenter build me bookcases of actual wood, but by then there will be no more books.
I paid movers this time, and they were dismayed but half amazed too. "Have you read all these?" asked one, and I said yes, although the truth is complicated. (I try not to store a single book that I haven't read or am not planning to read, and yet there are some signed by friends or colleagues that are just not my kind of thing and that I can't throw away or the universe will punish me for my ingratitude.) And I'm not even the obsessive bibliophile type: I have very few first editions, most are paperbacks, and there are very few I would not use as a coaster or doorstop. I know guys who keep their books behind smoked glass and won't let you rest your spectacles on top of one.
So I always wonder, on every move, why I add to the cost and cut down the space in my inevitably tiny new living quarters by keeping these. People come to see my minuscule new living room and say, hmm, you could have another foot and a half without that wall of bookshelves. True, but then you would never be able to distract yourself, while waiting for me to dress, by pulling down, at random, Weapons of World War II and 100 Erotic Drawings.
But you'd probably have brought your own e-reader with you, which you'd be looking at anyway (checking Facebook, updating: "I am so mad right now"). Book-walls are just aesthetic now, just an unusually dense wallpaper: We don't really need them for consultation. I can probably find the complete text of most of them online within an hour. It's the same for CDs: If you have the time to copy them all, you can throw them all away and buy music online for the rest of your life. In the future, we will live in ever-smaller houses with ever-larger TV screens, so you need all the wall-space you have. And all our books will be invisible, like our music: The sum total of our literary experience will be a list of file names on a grey plastic machine in a briefcase.
This will make for much more overburdened computers and much less cluttered apartments. Bric-a-brac is generally unfashionable now. Designers see apartments full of amusing memorabilia - the matchboxes from Berlin, the Soweto tin car, all the stuff that children love - as dust-gathering and space-consuming. We no longer respect the Cabinet of Wonders as a guiding principle of decoration.
So we lose forever the pleasure known to humanity for 500 years of taking a stroll up and down the aisles of someone else's brain by perusing their bookshelves. Gone will be the guilty joy of spending a rainy afternoon at a cottage with the remnants of someone else's childhood: their Nancy Drews, their 1970s National Geographics. Without bookshelves, you will never know the warning signs contained in the e-reader of your handsome date - you will not know for months that he is reading The Secret and Feng Shui for Dummies, even if you stay over. You will never be able to ask, as casually as you can, "Did you like this?" as you pull down, as if fascinated, Patrick Swayze's autobiography.
No doubt the creators of e-books will come up with an app for this: If you are a Twilight reader at a social gathering, your machine will sense the proximity of another Twilight novel in someone else's reader and will light up with a big pulsing hot-chocolate icon. (If it's set to Chuck Palahniuk, the beer icon lights up, and so on.) I know, technology can do all this. But it won't be the same as good old clutter. When all our apartments are clean, I will miss the wooden skeletons from Mexico and the science-fiction from high school.