This is the text of a Surf's Up column I wrote for the St. John's Telegram in July 2012. In the years since, my view has only sharpened; if I buy something that belongs on a shelf, it needs to earn a space.
When I was a kid, I loved visiting my cousins, especially when there was a stop at the radio station that my uncle managed. It was the first time I was inside a radio studio, a no doubt influential introduction to the world of microphones and broadcasting.
One of the perks of the visits came when Uncle Jim invited us to help ourselves to the surplus 45s that had all been grouped together. There seemed to be hundreds of them.
"How many can I take?" I asked.
"As many as you like," came the reply.
It took me a good few years to figure out why my uncle had no problem with giving away so many records.
At first, I thought it had something to do with the fact that many of the records were, well, pretty cruddy, or at least looked that way. Certainly I had never heard of many of the song titles or singers on the labels. Yes, I’m sure some gems slipped through my pre-adolescent fingers, but apart from a few tunes I recognized (I was one of those kids who stayed up to hear the Flashback Six-Pack and the Top 10 at 10) most of them rang no bells whatsoever.
I had no idea at the time that record companies used to flood radio stations, even the small ones, with promotional copies of their latest releases.
I simply assumed that my uncle was just separating the musical wheat from the chaff, and the DJs were discarding what they didn’t want to play on the air. Which is true, but there was definitely more to it than that.
Much later, a far more significant insight became apparent to me.
It wasn’t just about the discards. It was really about conserving space.
The station was not very large, and while the library seemed voluminous to me at the time, it was also packed solid.
When I grew up and started working at newspapers, one of the perks was being able to grab a freebie here and there, particularly in review copies of books and records. I actually reviewed some of them, too, although I freely took home unknown works in the hope that they might turn out to be wonderful, or at least decent.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of dreck, especially among the albums (and later CDs) that showed up in the mail. I kept a fair bit, but I soon enough noticed that with my own collections of things to read and hear, our apartment was filling up to the ratfers. Some weeding was in order.
Through the years, we bought a house, and then a bigger one, but we’ve found the paradox of having any kind of space: sooner or later, you run out of it.
As we earned more money, we found ways to spend it. We still loved checking out used bookstores and flea markets for the bargains we needed to find when we were starting out; later on, we just bought more!
Our bookshelves are groaning again; where there’s enough space on the ledge, we have extra piles of paperbacks, all pushed up against the other books.
We’ve decided on one thing, though: as much as we love to read, we’re determined to not buy any more bookshelves. There are many worse habits to have than buying books, but our issue isn’t that: it’s wanting to manage the space around us.
Now we’re in a digital age, in which our cultural habits have come together with our desire to keep a lid on physical possessions.
I still like buying books, and we manage the shelving situation by passing along books to others and making donations to charity sales. But the situation has certainly eased because of the advent of tablets.
My wife made the switch to digital reading before I did, and found it an easier transition than she anticipated. I’ve had the same experience.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that I’m buying fewer magazines – at least in hard copy. I now subscribe digitally to nine magazines, and that number will probably increase; I find it very convenient for my reading habit, it’s lighter in the backpack, and there are fewer magazines around the house to recycle or give away.
As for books, when I buy one digitally now, a consideration other than price and desire is this: space. Do I really want a hard copy? Especially when I know that, basically, every book that comes into the house means that another will have to go out?
The digital music revolution that kicked into high gear more than a decade ago has yielded similar feelings. I still buy actual albums, but now it’s because I really want them. A download, often made on impulse, has come to mean much less of a commitment.
Books don’t last forever – leave one out in the sun to learn about how they can decay – but I’ve been rethinking my whole approach to them. I still love my books; paradoxically, almost, my digital choices have led me to appreciate them that much more.