Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.


Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?


At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.

8 thoughts on “Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

  1. I am trying (and trying) to purge my books. Such a challenge. Even after getting rid of piles and piles, I still have hundreds and hundreds; thanks for making me feel better about how long it’s taking me. And gosh, I sure do hope people continue to keep books on their shelves. I’ve read so many great books after discovering them on friends’ bookshelves.

  2. Per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, Ellen.
    In order to consolidate our many bookshelves, we had floor-to-ceiling bookcases built into our living room wall in the 90s. My husband is much better at winnowing than I am. It is still half full with hundreds of books that I can’t bear to part with. Intellectually, I know that I can find anything there online, but it is the feel of a book that I can’t get over. Particularly garden books, poring over them in winter, slowly turning each page to gaze at the details in the flowers and gardens. I just can’t imagine the online experience being the same. I know you’re right, though. It’s only a matter of time before books are considered quaint. I hope I’m not here to see the end of printed books!

  3. Yes, I know, we’re supposed to pare things down . . . . but my books are my friends. Especially my books from childhood. Someone is going to get stuck cleaning them out after I’m no longer here, I think. In the meantime, if you can’t find it at the library or the bookstore–call me! 😉

  4. Pare down, yes. Make sure you value each book you own, yes. But do not discard those bookshelves. While we have hands and noses and eyes and physical senses, we will enjoy real books. The sight of them lining the shelves and coloring an office wall, the smell of ink and paper, the heft in our hands, the sensation of turning pages and encountering random lines and memories they evoke. They need no recharging or screen light. They are tangible, not virtual. The pleasure they deliver is not going to go away anytime soon. I hope you get more hardcovers for Christmas, if only to enjoy them for a while and then pass them on.

    • Paring down is as far as I can go! I could never get rid of all of my books and bookcases. There will always be room in my home for real books. Especially important books like yours — The War Came Home with Him.

  5. I hate liking this post! No!!!! I can’t part with my books–or my bookshelves. The thought that I am the last generation of this makes me want to cry. When you can’t surround yourself with something you lose sight of it. Makes sense, huh? Like out of sight, out of mind.

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