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Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands. As the Kindle and Nook march on, people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.
That’s one way to look at it, sure. But I’m going to play the contrarian here, and for once I’m going to do it from a position of optimism.
Let’s recall what happened to vinyl after the advent of cassette tapes, and later CDs and MP3s. They didn’t die out entirely, not at all; not only do collectors still covet older vinyl records, but quite a few bands still produce new ones in limited releases alongside their new CDs and digital offerings. The folks who now collect vinyl are considered sophisticated music connoisseurs—or, depending on your perspective and the specific collector, pretentious dicks.
Either way, a vinyl collection is a sign of commitment to the medium, or at least of a desire to demonstrate commitment to the medium. I don’t think it’s implausible that if eBooks truly take over, print editions will one day be regarded in the same way.
So take heart, single book nerds of the future. That cute girl on the subway reading a print edition of The Age of Innocence isn’t just doing it for a class—the very fact that she has a print edition in the first place means she’s a serious reader. As for your dog-eared copy of—to borrow from Matt’s example—Goodbye, Columbus, it will now be sexier than ever, at least to the sort of person you were looking to attract in the first place.
And hey, if that turns out to be wishful thinking, there’s always the “Favorite Books” section on your Facebook and online dating profiles.