How To Keep A Library And Read Books In The Digital Age


The first thing you need to know about having a library and buying books is that reading a lot of different authors doesn’t necessarily make you well-read.

It is not evident to me that someone whose regular reading consists of all the latest blogs and magazines and a hundred different New York Times best selling authors has any profounder wisdom about life and literature than the person who has only read the Bible, Shakespeare, and Euclid fully.

Look, there are only one or two writers every other decade that give us anything of real importance. The rest is just noise. Or old ideas in a fresh marketing shell.

What is higher, what is profound, what strikes is rare.

So, I suppose, if you’re really serious about your intellectual development trash it all and hit the foundational works of not only literature but Western cultural and political life: Socrates, Paul, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Nietzsche, etc.

Once you have the foundational framework in place, perhaps venture into the infinite data-sea of the written word. In 2010, Google estimated there were about 129,864,880 books in existence. I’ve read maybe 3,000 of them at vary degrees of comprehension and have traversed about 200 books in 2013. Of those 200 I feel like I have an adequate to advanced level of understanding of most of them.

I repeat, the main way I pull this off is understanding how all books are connected to other books.  And knowing the core stories and ideas that configured our minds, literature, and society. From there, it all becomes all so much more intelligible, navigable, and paradoxically mysterious as well. You understand the cosmos of books.

The following reading tips can’t hurt either though.

Embrace the Kindle.

The Kindle is like the World Wide Web, but instead of browsing websites, you move through the grooves of books, which is a merger of two great traditions: the sustained and organized thought architecture of print + the speed, accessibility, and flexibility of the web… That’s a powerful combination.

More specifically, here is how the Kindle rocks…

The Kindle gives you one-tap access, anywhere and anytime, to the largest library in the history of the Earth.

Holding a Kindle is the equivalent to holding every book in your college library in your hand.  How is that for an anti-library? (An anti-library is a library filled with books you haven’t read to remind you of everything you don’t yet know.) At any moment, you can find and buy any book and start reading it in seconds. This instant access to such a large library will help accelerate your reading for it allows more serendipity, efficiency, and wonder in your reading/discovery.

The Kindle gives you one-tap access to every book in your library no matter where you are.

This is like the above one. But not only can you access all the digital books on Amazon’s cloud library. But anytime you want you can access all the books in your own library at any second. Having a debate with someone at dinner? Pull out your library on your iPhone, and pull up any page in seconds for your citation.  What is better than being able to carry your whole library with you?

The Kindle destroys illusions of ownership and replaces it with the messiness of literary (and epistemological) reality.

Ryan Holiday talks about how ownership of books is important. There’s truth to that. There’s also truth in the idea that reading and buying books is more like “owning” and studying a map than anything real kind of formal ownership. If you “own” a map and study it hard — it doesn’t mean you own the land, it just means you understand the landscape, you know how to transverse it. Same goes with books. You don’t own them as much as you know them, you’re familiar with their currents and topography of pathos and information. The Kindle ebook library, always ethereal, always just abstract megabytes, makes this idea of ownership so abstract that only way you can feel “ownership” over the titles is by absorbing their data and beautifully into your body/brain or commonplace book. In short, the Kindle eBook library is great because you can’t fall back on physical things as crutch to feel like you’ve mastered something.  You have to deal with the infinite and abstract reality of their stories and ideas.

Glass is a more apt technology for reading than paper in a lot of ways.

Paper is an incredible technology and I don’t discount it even in the digital age. Yet, I do find light/glass more times than not to be a far effective holder for language than wood.

Glass reading allows for more flexibility in highlighting and note taking: it’s erasable  and can hold unlimited notes.

Glass reading makes for easier access to a dictionary: just click the word and the definition will be revealed.

And most importantly, but most abstrusely, glass reading makes for a more unbounded reading experience; there are no page numbers: just locations, you can search books easily by keywords or memorable, and you can read them in all sorts of powerful ways. Because digital books are pure data – you can reorganize, remix, destroy, and redirect data in all sorts of useful ways.  Your focus is less on the linear process of the physical book and more on approaching the text from locations and reading in a way that makes it most efficient to extract the book. (If you know what I’m talking about and can explain this a better way email me: Or if you want more on digital reading strategies check our Jerome McGann’s Radiant Texualtiy.)

Embrace multiple reading devices.

I use the Kindle across four different devices: iPhone, iPad, iMac, and the Kindle Paperwhite. Each device has it’s own unique advantage (and disadvantages).  But the fact that the books are not tied to a physical format, and can shapeshift to whatever format you need is key to a productive reading experience. Here is how I use my devices:

Kindle for iPhone

Use it for for accessibility. You can carry every single book you’ve ever purchased in your pocket at all times. Great for reading a book while waiting in line, on the subway, etc.

Kindle for iPad

Ideal for leisurely or scholarly reading. Normally will use the iPad while on the couch reading, or in a library trying to just focus in on a title or tow.

Kindle for iMac

Best for reviewing the notes and highlights you have left in your digital books.  Also great for referencing books while your writing on your desktop.

Kindle Paperwhite

Use this one the least of all my devices. But great for reading when on the beach or in a rugged condition where you are worried about breaking one of your other devices. And because the paperwhite emulates paper you can read it in the sun and with your sunglasses on.


I often will order print versions of books when I’m doing a prolong study of a title as I find having both the digital and physical copy helpful. Each medium reveals different secrets in the books. I find when I really want to dig deep into the core of the book I need both digital and print. But for most even advanced reading it’s best to just it on a certain Kindle device.

Keep a rare book physical library.

The Kindle’s cloud library already makes the idea of a library arbitrary on a practical level. Oyster, a Spotify for books, will make that even more of a reality when they launch in full. So should we just give up on physical libraries since every book is a click away? No. For me, I’ve sold off all my physical books that I can find in a digital format except for the following:

Physical books that have a true sentimental value for me: a copy of Dubliners from a long lost friend, a beat up copy of The Divine Comedy from college, etc.

Physical books that are rare, unavailable in digital formats, or better absorbed on paper: a massive oversized Bible, beautiful graphic books like Mannahatta, or some old scholarly book that only had a small printing.

Physical books that while available in digital formats played such an important role in my life that I want them to have a real presence in my home.

In this way, the the kindle enhances your experience with reading print/physical books and your real world library. The constellation of most books resides digitally in the cloud where you move through texts, and the most important stuff manifests itself in the physical world. The two together make for a great team.

Samuel Johnson says a book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.  The trick is teaching yourself to know how to read so that your greatest escape involves reading books that teach you how to endure life.  To do this, you must train your mind, you must be open to the world, you must have a liberal education. Without it all the reading tips in the world do much at all for you. So just be open to learning and you will be a fine reader with a fine library.

Counterpoint: How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books.