What ebooks need are…ebookshelves

I have a friend who buys books on the basis of what will look good on his shelves to anyone inspecting them after he has died. Like always wearing clean pants just incase you get hit by a car, this motivation for book purchasing has a lot to do with how others see us. I don’t recommend it. But I think it’s likely true that part of what most of us enjoy about books is the act of putting them, keeping them, and ordering them, on shelves.

I no longer own any book shelves. I’m currently living out of a single back pack as a globetrotting digital nomad. I do have some boxes of books in storage, and one day I might place them back on some shelves of my own. Until then I’m 100% ebook. My book collection lives on a hard-drive alongside my music, film and tv collections. My ebook collection is by far the most important to me. But it is also by far the least satisfying in its digital format.

Ebooks themselves are unsatisfying. I love reading them, but as objects they are a failure. An ebook is really just a text file wrapped in some markup code which instructs your e-reader on how to display it. It’s technically almost identical to a webpage, except with all but the most basic features crippled to create the perceptual illusion that this is a book (something worth paying for) not a web page (something most people are not willing to pay for). As skeuomorphism recedes from digital design, ebooks are clinging on to it for dear life. But it’s in contrast to print books that ebooks fail as objects. A print book arrives ready to read. An ebook needs bits of software and hardware, may well need converting if not for the exact platform you are reading on, and will often break and lose essential formatting. An ebook feels much like an unbound print book, like a stack of loose pages liable to chaotic disorder.

The Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play platforms solve this problem by providing a beginning to end experience from choosing and purchasing and ebook to reading and storing it. But none of them do it very well or very creatively. The best ebook library software is the open source Calibre, but it’s ugly and buggy and will never be loved despite being extremely useful.

What I want for my ebooks are…ebookshelves. I want software that beautifully and elegantly stores my ebooks, in someway echoing the experience of a study in English stately home, stocked with excellent hardbound tomes. I want a reading experience, on my computer, phone or tablet that replicates the satisfying objectness of a print book while integrating the best of what ebooks could offer in interactivity and illustrating graphics if they chose to. And I want these things not just as a reader but as a writer as well. Because if the writers business (as opposed to art) is, ultimately, selling books to people, then the experience of buying, reading and owning those books still needs to be radically improved from its current piecemeal, unsatisfactory state.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

6 thoughts on “What ebooks need are…ebookshelves

  1. In a few years time, we’ll probably have replaced televisions with 4K wall-screens, which can be set to display the covers of our books, music and videos in a dynamically updated and interactive screensaver.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I see your point, but I actually wonder if the shift towards digital media will let us move away from concerns about how it looks as a collection, and focus on other media for their aesthetic qualities around the home instead. That said, I have a friend who collects original Lovecraft and Derlath editions, and he’s clearly going to continue with that for aesthetic and emotional reasons – no generality about these changes is ever going to apply to everyone.


  3. I’ve thought about a wall in everyone’s house which displays music and books and movies and the stuff that you want to represent you. I’ve also thought of digital book covers on your reader which display slideshows of your books; obviously you can suppress the stuff you’re embarrassed to be reading. I’ve thought about the digital stuff having this radiant quality, which we tolerate and curate; instead of DRM, the content has this tendency to radiate, market itself, share itself in ways designed to create licensed use. The kindles push ads, unless you pay extra. That’s not quite what I want as a content creator. I want my books to exist in a variety of forms, free but ephemeral, like a library lend or a friend lending a paperback, more permanent but only in exchange for some form of payment, and finally, a subscription type permission based marketing / email kind of thing; subsidy model… but yeah. Digital bookshelves.



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