Digital Distribution and the End of Home Warehousing

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]


In late 2005, I had a chance conversation in a bookstore during which a complete stranger recommended that I read The Short Version by Stan Persky. I picked up a copy, intrigued by the promise of Persky's articulate outline of Richard Rorty's thought. The book sat on the shelf, awaiting my attention, for three years.

Last week the mood finally struck. It was a good recommendation: not only was the piece on Rorty one of the best 15-page outlines of Pragmatism (and its implications for liberal politics) that I've read; The Short Version is a delightful personal survey of a number of topics from Constantine Cavafy to ancient mythology to teaching philosophy to the history of Berlin. All of these topics are discretely handled but finely interwoven by the author's clear-headed humanism and keen intelligence. It is also a fabulous incentive to read some of those books about which Persky writes about so enthusiastically.

Winter's Night: Good

Winter's Night: Good

Winter's Night: Evil

Winter's Night: Evil

One of those authors is Italo Calvino. So I have now started reading If On A Winter's Night A Traveler. I own a Vintage UK edition, which I picked up in London a couple of years ago, knowing I would otherwise have to suffer the appalling cover and intermittent availability of the Key Porter edition here in Canada.

It has sat on the shelf, awaiting my attention, for two years.

You may begin to notice notice a pattern here.

The behaviours that led to both of these books taking up space in my apartment for months on end, exercising little function except taunting me with their unreadness, were responses to scarcity. Even the Calvino decision -- apparently a matter of aesthetics -- was driven by scarcity. I was unable to get an attractive trade paperback in Canada: so pick it up in London.

One of the things that book-buyers do is accumulate books during phases of interest, on whims of passing fancy, or with some future plan in mind, even if they aren't going to start reading them immediately. Why? Because you never know when (or if) you're going to see this book again -- whether the store will carry it, whether another customer will have bought it. Whether you'll even remember what book it was -- and whether you'll be able to find it among the wealth of other books. Sometimes items are scarce because they have to wind their way through production processes that may not scale well for -- for example -- deep backlist articles. Sometimes they are scarce because of the abundance of competing, surrounding products.

This is something that Kevin Drum has been thinking about recently:

In the past, I'd go to the bookstore and buy several books at a time. Naturally I meant to read all of them, and just as naturally, I didn't. Another book would catch my eye before I'd finished them all, a review book would come in the mail, I'd get a few books for Christmas, etc. etc. The upshot is that some of the books would fall to the bottom of the pile and never get read.

With the Kindle, though, there's no pile. When I finish a book, all I have to do is decide at that moment what I feel like reading next. Ten minutes later I have it. I don't know for sure if this is good or bad in the long run, but it's certainly different.

It's the same, of course, for music. All that time and energy you would expend trying to remind yourself about rare and essential releases that you would simply have to purchase should you ever find them. That copy of Joe Cocker's epic Mad Dogs & Englishmen double-album, surely one of the finest documents of a drugs-&-booze-fueled transcontinental rock 'n' roll odyssey since Lewis and Clark. Pete LaRoca's meditative hard-bop jazz classic Basra (which, apparently, was on the cusp of a Rudy Van Gelder-remastered rerelease in 2003 only to be yanked when LaRoca hated the idea of being associated with the Iraq war). RZA's bizarre and graceful hip-hop score to Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, only available as an astonishingly expensive import from Japan. The follow-on activities from this kind of thing were exhausting: making lists; transferring them to whatever technology (notebooks? spreadsheets? Palm Pilot?) were most current; remembering to print the damn things out and carry them around with you in case you happened to stop by somewhere that might carry them. Indeed -- planning and preparing to visit a store. And then the hours spent poring through their inventory like a reference librarian.

Not much fun.

Needless to say, all of this activity -- the effort required to make a purchase -- accords a higher value to the product itself, leading to hoarding. That's just one way in which your money (and time) are wasted by the economies of cultural scarcity. Among others: the capital depreciation, the obvious physical degradation (I'm looking at you, crappy yellow-edged UK trade paperbacks), the fact that your current assessment of how much you want something may not efficiently estimate the future return on your investment, and the massive opportunity cost when an apartment full of books prevents you from installing a perfectly good wine refrigerator or vintage pinball machine.

I for one will be happy when this is behind us. When everything is always available, everywhere, and you can quickly tag books, music, or anything else for future purchase (without fear of there being obstacles), where is the incentive to fill your living space with stuff that you may one day read? Couldn't you make better use of all that space?