My Beautiful Librarette

The digital evolution of the home library

A few weeks back my husband and I watched “My Beautiful Laundrette,” Stephen Frears’s 1985 film of a Haneif Kureishi screenplay that made Daniel Day-Lewis a star. Day-Lewis plays Johnny, a London tough whose schoolboy crush on his Pakistani classmate Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke) blossoms into love as the two men make a go of Omar’s uncle’s laundromat–and cope with all sorts of prejudices of class and race and sexual identity. It’s a movie with, in other words, with themes that should stand the test of time.

Well, the themes do–but the filmmaking doesn’t. From the uneven acting to the intrusive soundtrack (those washing-machine noises!) to the choppy cinematography, this movie (originally a BBC4 television project) is best viewed as a sort of time capsule.

However, it popped into mind again when I thought of time capsules after reading this excellent blog post about e-books and home libraries. It’s true that digital versions of bound volumes do not “make a room” the way that traditional paper books can. But the question on my mind is how we treat our home libraries overall. Are they time capsules? Everchanging assortments? Displays of taste or status?

Not only do I think that books can play all of the above roles and more in anyone’s home–I think that considering which roles books play in one’s own home can affect how we think about e-books and their roles in private spaces.

In my house, I have one set of bookshelves that is set up as a time capsule–it holds all of the books authors I’ve interviewed have inscribed to me. Not far from those is my “To Be Read” shelf of books that I’m not considering for review or recommendation, but still would like to get to before the end of the next, oh, decade. I have two shelves above my workspace that are dedicated to inspiration–one for writing, one for spiritual guidance. In my living room the shelves are filled with volumes whose titles spark conversation or whose covers are as glorious as their content, as well as books I like to lend, while in the bedroom my nightstand stacks of books teeter precariously, everchanging selections that wind up on different bookshelves once they’ve been read.

Those books give life to those rooms. I cannot imagine living without them. Yet even if I switch out books from time to time, even if I use those books frequently, even if those books are beautiful and interesting and vital, at some point they become objects on shelves, no more and no less useful than a bunch of washing machines used as movie props.

The real work is in what those books do for my mind. And yes, part of what they do for my mind is to provide a lively backdrop; I love to let my eyes roam across book spines as I think and work and relax in the various rooms in my house.

Once upon a time–back in the good old “My Beautiful Laundrette” days–all of my reading material was in paper form. However, not all of the content I consumed was so–obviously, since I was also watching Stephen Frears movies! We all watch television, see films, and listen to the radio, as well as read books. While I’d like to believe that I choose my books carefully, I know that some of the volumes on my shelves are not as good as some of the greatest movies out there. Yet I don’t try to “keep” or shelve those movies, at least not in the same way I do books.. Why do I want to keep and shelve books?

My point is that we think differently about books, and I think we need to keep thinking about why we think differently about books if we don’t want them to become dated relics of an earlier age. Why, in earlier ages, a library was a place where the books were attached by chains to the shelves and no one could take them home. Do we want to return to that? Probably not. In earlier ages, only the very rich had more than a small shelf of books in their homes. Do we want to return to that? I doubt it.

I don’t have an answer to what comes next. Might we all wind up with tablets programmed to display our current reads, displayed on our otherwise-empty bookshelves? Or will our home libraries become document lists on our devices? But would either of those scenarios be worse than a home library haphazardly filled with a bunch of books no one ever actually reads?

“My Beautiful Laundrette” can be called a time capsule only because people still watch it. A time capsule that is never opened or viewed is simply a relic. While future archeologists might welcome a good hoard of books, those of us who love to read and believe in the future of books and publishing should probably plan on digging up some solutions sooner rather than later.