Accidental Discovery

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischThe argument for real books against virtual books is often based on the thingness of the real book — the beauty of the binding, the pleasure of handsome design and typesetting, the sensuality of turning a paper page, the pride of ownership. I sympathize with that, but I’m a reader, not a collector — I love my books (and I have lots of them) for what’s in them. Except for a few dear, battered kid’s books that both my mother and I read as children, the physical individuality of a book is pretty secondary to me.

And so, given this priority of the contents, I’ve defended the e-book and e-reading devices as an extension of, not an attack on, The Book — as augmentation, not loss or destruction.

But this piece is about one way e-books do involve a real limitation, a loss. If this appears somewhat inconsistent, consider: what is life without incompatible realities?

It all began (like many novels) with a letter. I hide from fan email and the social media because email for business and with close friends is all or more than I can handle. Sometimes my PO mail is more than I can handle, too, though I always hope to respond. Anyhow, the letter Orion Elenzil wrote me was handwritten on paper, and it was a very nice letter of appreciation. But there was a PS or afterthought that I was particularly struck with. Orion says it’s OK to quote him:

…About traditional paper books compared to E-books… There’s an aspect to traditional books which is lost in even the best electronic reader, which is Accidental Discovery: i’m reading this or that, and leave it laying about the house, and you visit and see it, or you’re perusing my book-shelves to see what i’m up to, and find something which interests you. I’m a technologist, and i worry that this casual, accidental, and as you mention, social means of discovering by talking about books is threatened by devices which need to be explicitly searched in order to find out what they hold.

I answered him right away (by email — he did say he’s a technologist!) I said:

Your ‘minor point’ about books on paper as opposed to ebooks, the quality of Accidental Discovery, seems to me actually a pretty major issue. What it made me think of first was library card catalogues…. The electronic library catalogue has all kinds of uses and virtues, but (at least as far as I can manage to use it) it absolutely lacks Accidental Discovery. Maybe it has a little Planned Discovery, via subject search, but it just can’t provide what the card catalogue did by way of serendipitous blundering into related or totally unrelated books and authors via the drawer of cards you happened to be looking at.

Then of course the library shelf multiplies Accidental Discovery enormously…. My “research method” was to go to the largest library accessible to me, get into the stack where some books about whatever it was were, and blunder around in those shelves pulling off books until I found the ones I needed. I mean, how much can you know from the title? One book on Ancient Roman Sewers will be useless and the one next to it will be a revelation. But riffling through to establish such judgments seems immensely easier to do with an actual bound book than with the page-by-page limitation of a reading device. (Not sure of that, since I still don’t own one, though I’ve played with them — maybe I just don’t know how to e-riffle.)

To this Orion answered,

I think you’ve hit a nail on the head with the process of browsing the stacks of a library, or of a bookstore. I often head into a bookstore without a specific author or type of book in mind, and just walk around looking at titles and covers, or trying out a couple pages in the middle until something catches my eye. or not.

(Of course, of course! — and this activity, browsing, is so important, and so impossible anywhere but in an actual, physical bookstore — the bookstores we’ve lost, because we’ve let ourselves be lured into the pathless jungles of the Amazone…. )

I hold some hope that this organic and somewhat undirected discovery of books may eventually find an analogue in the digital age. I never would have predicted the amazing ways of sharing online we currently have, so I can’t profess to imagine what the e-reader may become in another ten or twenty years. But I absolutely agree with you that the current modes lack the accidental discovery which artifact books have so wonderfully. Altho I confess I’m also criticizing e-readers without having used them.

(Me too — have played with several kinds of e-reader, but haven’t yet felt a need to own one.

(Orion goes on: )

Another minor aspect I enjoy of traditional books which is currently meaningless with their digital offspring is that each book is its own artifact, complete with a small history and story. Many book-lovers would condemn me, but I’m an inveterate marker-of-pages and notes-in-the-margin maker. And it may be a small hubris, but in books I feel a particular connection with, I generally add my own name beneath the author’s on the title page — not as a mark of ownership, but of history. And now that I say it out loud, I realize that perhaps that agrees with your notion that “Reading is a collaboration”.

In any event, I’m positive that reading will remain healthy, and I’m hopeful that e-reading may discover ways to provide these things we enjoy in traditional reading.

I hadn’t even thought about writing-in-books. It’s a subject naturally loathesome to the librarian. And to the kind of collector who encases an unread book in plastic to preserve its virginity. But Orion is right, it’s important.

Underlining whole passages as I used to do, or even worse covering them with neon hiliter, is a lazy student habit that severely defaces a book. But the pencilled exclamation point or question mark, and the “Bullshit!” or “Wow!” or more subtle or cryptic comments in the margin, are only mildly intrusive, and can be enjoyable, adding a lively sense of connection to an earlier reader. A previous owner’s name on the flyleaf or title page gives this same sense of continuity. An old book bought secondhand may have the names of several people who owned the book, and sometimes dates – 1895, 1922, 1944…. This always touches me. I like to add my name and the year, respectfully, to the list.

My beloved friend Roussel Sargent recently gave me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in 1596 and rebound in vellum in 1604 — a very small, very thick volume, pocket-size, the letterpress still black and clear, imprinted on linen paper that weighs nothing and has worn like iron. For all my lack of the collector’s instinct, I handle that little book with reverence. It is the oldest book I have ever touched, by far. And touch does mean a good deal. So does time.

I know what the contents are, but reading Ovid in this edition would be even slower work for me than reading Latin always is. When I look into it, I’m far more likely to try to puzzle out the writing-in-the-book than the printed text. The margins are full of comments and the close-printed lines are interlineated with translations (mostly into German, or with another Latin word) in various colors of ink, some very faded, and many different handwritings, all tiny and mostly illegible to me. This book has been a scholar’s treasure and perhaps a schoolboy’s torment, it’s been bought and sold and given, lost and found, it’s been jammed into the pockets of greatcoats, thumped about in rucksacks, pored over in student lodgings, it has gathered dust in attics, crossed many waters, and changed hands a hundred times; it contains four hundred years of obscure human histories right along with the two-thousand-year-old words of the poet. Would I prefer it virginal, encased in plastic? Are you crazy?

But the question I can’t answer has to do with content. It’s this: To what extent is the Metamorphoses in e-book form the same book as the one I’ve been describing?

I don’t know.

But thinking about it has made it clearer to me that what there is to a physical book beside its text may be quite important. And it appears that these aspects, these qualities, these intellectual and social accidents, are at present inaccessible to electronic technology: irreproducible.

I hope my generous correspondent Orion is right that we may figure out how to restore human connectivity to the e-book, so that it does not, like so much of what we do on our electronic devices, isolate us more and more deeply, even as we are busier and busier communicating.


25 March 2013



Accidental Discovery — 39 Comments

  1. The accidental discovery that existed by browsing a library/friend’s shelves can be answered fairly simply by “Goodreads” (or “Librarything” or “Shelfari” or “FaceBook” or “Pinterest” or “also boughts”). I’ve discovered dozens of books on digital shelves, just as I once discovered them on physical shelves.

    True, we can have social media without having ebooks and accidentally discover a book which only exists in physical form – but as more of the backlist become digitised, the more that accidental discovery leads to instant acquisition.

    • When I bought my iPad a couple of years ago, it immediately became more useful to me on a daily basis than even my laptop had proven thus far. The immediate bonus for me was the availability of digital books through Amazon or the Apple iBooks pages. I read as voraciously as I ever did and as I had a penchant to buy my favorite authors in their 1st edition hardbounds, I was also saving $$ by up to 50% on my reading experience.

      My primary criteria for digital purchase of ebooks is a tossup between convenience and price–and if both work to my advantage, fine. Yet still– older books in digital format, such as UKL’s Earthsea books are still priced at virtually the same as for a typical paperback, and as I am a reader and not a collector (any more) a used paperback is more than adequate as I no longer feel the need to put the book up on a shelf to fondle along with its brethren in bulk.

      Regardless, lately I’ve been reading the physical books again (I work for a man who owns both a sci-fi mystery bookstore and comic book shop) and its infinitely cheaper to ‘borrow’ what I want to read and return it rather than read anything digitally.

      There is a place…ultimately…for someday being able to mark up a digital book with one’s own observations. It will happen. And Amazon provides some serendipity of discovery on its pages.

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  3. I was going to mention Goodreads in response as well.

    You also mention highlighting and notetaking in your books, and this being away to connect to readers who have owned the book before you. Kobo does something similar to this, you can take a note in your copy of the book, even highlight, and it will appear across all the other instances of the book on everyone’s Kobo eReaders and apps. If you don’t like this idea you can simply turn them off. It’s kind of nice to see what other people wrote in the margins.

    These points are well made, and I think as we go forward we will continue to see strides made in these directions.

    • can/will we design programmed accidents? maybe we should be seeing the ‘neighbours’ in the electronic list (rather than the ‘similar’ or ‘people who bought this’)


      but what a great idea, the kobo sharing of comments/annotations across books. Though it could put people off writing what they really felt if they new it would be seen by others (though I guess you can choose whether to share as well as whether you see other peoples comments).


      great post


  4. I don’t have an e-reader either but – Goodreads, yes! This is what a social network is for! I don’t want to know what’s for breakfast. I don’t want to know what’s on TV. But to know what my friends are reading, in real time, like their couches, comfy chairs and carpets are giving up their secrets, and not just the books they leave around on purpose but all their trashy treasures, too – it is wonderful! And I can see the favourite quotes and page references without the danger of lending them something they might forget to return! 🙂

  5. Actually, I’ve had tons more Accidental Discoveries since I’ve started reading ebooks. As the other commenters have mentioned, there’s lots about books on social media. A number of my friends participate in the Goodreads Reading Challenge and also blog about what they read. They didn’t do that before ebooks made it easier and cheaper to get new books on the fly … And we’re talking about books more, too, sharing thoughts, discussing problems on blogs or on chat.

  6. Despite what everyone says above about Goodreads (not that they’re wrong), I miss the library-shelf phenomenon, which is a piece of accidental discovery. What Goodreads and its ilk gives you is recommendations, from people you know or at least have some connection with. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany writes persuasively about the value of “contact” (the unexpected or unlikely encounters you have on the street, in the grocery store, etc.) as compared to “networking” (encounters that you or someone else encourages because they see some kind of possible gain–not necessarily financial–in doing so). In this context, accidental discovery is contact–you might find something no one you are likely to know ever heard of, and Goodreads is networking.

    The other thing I miss is being able to see what the people around me, on the bus or the train or in the cafe, are reading. This used to be a way that I started conversations with strangers and now, in my highly technological Bay Area, it’s much more rare.

    On the other hand, I did spend time on the bus yesterday watching a male teenager of color deeply entranced in a paperback Laurell K. Hamilton book. I despise Hamilton’s work, but I loved watching him read the book anyway.

    I don’t hate e-books, and I’m glad to see Goodreads flourish. This is just a “contrasting view,” as they say on the radio.

    • What Debbie said. I get recommendations from everywhere, but finding something interesting on a friend’s bookshelf or browsing in a bookstore leads to a different kind of serendipity.

      However, I confess I prefer ebooks for the purpose of making notes and highlights. And I’d really like it if most of my personal library, aside from the few artistic books, was available on my tablet. I, too, am a reader rather than a collector, but the sheer physicality of print makes me both. My life has too many physical objects, but I hate giving up easy access to the words in books by giving them away.

      Mixed emotions. It’s also a shame that the printing press led to a decline in oral storytelling. Change brings positives and negatives. Awareness of the virtues of both sides is important.

  7. I agree with what Ms. Le Guin says about the beauty of discovery through bookshelves, and the limitations of e-readers in that regard. Somewhat related, though, and with a more hopeful outlook for the e-future: I do want to note that when I read online, I’m constantly looking up references or ideas that occur to me while I’m reading, and the pages I find spark new ideas and suggest new topics of interest, which I can then easily search for and learn about. I also have to admit that Amazon’s “search inside” feature is incredibly useful for sampling a few pages of almost any book that might cross my path in the course of these explorations. So online reading tends to take me on a journey of wide-ranging and thoroughly unexpected discoveries.

    • I too miss browsing a shelf, well stocked or not. Libraries, despite what people wish, do not keep most books forever. There simply is not enough space and so withdrawals are necessary. Unfortunately the withdrawal process can be quite arbitrary. Some books are withdrawn because they are not checked out within a certain period of time, or some books because they are “dated” by reason of appearance or if non-fiction they are removed because of new technology/ideas/trends. Unfortunately, the system is not perfect. There is a resource book librarians use to keep a core of books “every library should have.” I have yet to figure out how this is determined, but take my word for it, the books it suggests I can’t imagine a library doing without; so on some level, it is a working system.

      As far as electronic browsing, I think the most important aspect is to make certain both public and academic libraries remain viable as each occupies its own niche and librarians in each type of library are tasked to buy books appropriate to its patrons’ desires and needs. Sharing of library catalogs (as in consortium libraries) opens all sorts of avenues for exciting searches.

      Search engines employ options such as subject, key word, title etc. that actually can make searching a bit more hit or miss. Use all of them interchangeably for best browsing results. I don’t think a search engine will ever approach the serendipitous “ah hah!” sense of discovery we take for granted while browsing the stacks, but occasionally I find treasure.

      I agree with Karen, I do like the option of using online resources while reading (like easily accessed up-to-date maps) that were not part of my past reading habits — or the ability to look up an historic reference or an unfamiliar word. But, admittedly, I do find myself sometimes going down the rabbit hole of unbridled curiosity. Maybe we are all explorers and simply don’t know it yet!

  8. Accidental Discovery and writing-in-books are,
    to me at least, important. I
    distinctly remember seeing Kepler’s own copy
    of Copernicus (at the Caroline Library, in
    Uppsala, Sweden — marvelous place; but I digress). It
    was important to me not only from a history-
    of-science viewpoint, not only because I had
    read about Copernicus and about Kepler as an
    adolescent, and been mightily impressed, but
    also — and most importantly —
    because this book had Kepler’s own notes penciled in
    the margins of the pages

    This brought home to me that Kepler had been
    a real human being, as alive then as I was when I saw his book,
    and that he had, in the best tradition of
    mathematicians and physicists, read that book
    with a pencil in hand, thinking about
    the material as he read it

    • You should check out Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read, about his lifelong search for copies of De Revolutionibus and the information he got from the marginal notations.

  9. It’s not easy to pin down exact reasons, but it works better for me to browse physical books in a bookstore or library than to make similar serendipitous discoveries on line. Maybe it’s that the online search feels like just another search task (in an environment made hostile by incessant marketing), while the physical browse is (or was) an a genuine pleasure.

    On line, I also find it hard to escape my worry that we are putting our literature further and further out on a technological limb. If we ever lose the technology, supply webs or social stability required to keep us equipped with working eReaders — what a mess.

  10. I have a 1600 copy of Ammianus Marcellinus’ History that I bought for £16 thirty years ago. I took it to school on World Book Day, and the children were fascinated by the difficult print and the texture of the vellum cover with handwritten label. I love real books (although I’d never, ever write in one) but I find that I’m reading on my iPhone more and more – it’s always in my pocket, so available for snatching a page or two in a queue, and lit up for reading in bed. Many of the e-books I’ve bought are versions of paper books I own already; others downloaded because I’ve seen them recommended online. I look on e-books as an extra dimension rather than a replacement.

  11. I have had such accidental discovery while searching for books, and if we have tools designed to showcase our library to friends, sharing things you are reading on social networks, for example then you have that. Also, a lot of ereaders DO have the ability to make notes, and even share them with others.

  12. I find the ebook highlighting features in my Kindle liberating! As a former librarian, I had a horror of ever marking up a print book, but highlighting and making notes in an ebook is totally different. For one thing, I can get rid of them if I want to.

    I would not say that accidental discovery is gone, merely that it happens in different ways. The free sample feature makes me much more willing to try new authors than I was with paper books.

    I was an avid reader before I became an ebook evangelist; as someone who has owned 5 different models of the Kindle, I think the two things I miss most from paper books are getting a signed copy by the author (the substitutes in the digital world are not the same) and being able to loan a book I loved to a friend (you can loan some Kindle books to one friend once, but that’s all). The convenience of having my library in my purse (and to make the fonts bigger) outweighs those two things, but I do miss them.

  13. As the son and brother of librarians, I have to say that nothing can ever replace browsing library stacks. But, as a denizen of the Peoples’ Republic of Portland, I also have the wonderful presence of Powell’s. Powell’s vast repository of new and old books consistently yields rewards.

    That said, I have been enjoying the benefits of eBooks and eReaders for several years. Much as I love them, book-books (I like that term rather than dead tree books) can be space hogs, particularly when traveling. And, thanks to Goodreads and other such sites, I do get some of the pleasures of browsing.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is that, in addition to the intellectual pleasures, libraries offer the sensual pleasures of touch and sight and, most importantly (to me anyway), smell.

    One can only hope that book-books will continue to be a part of our mental and sensory universe for many years to come.

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  15. It is a cliché that Librarian’s don’t approve of writing in books. We are the worst at defacing books with our labels and Deweys and barcodes etc.
    I grieve that publishers limit the Library’s ability to share a wide range of ebooks with our patrons. The fear that their product and profit will be diluted or stolen is so short sighted. Serendipity and availability go hand in hand when you cross the threshold, physically or electronically.

  16. This is a fascinating comment string. I’ve learned a lot about the capacities of e-readers, though am still not clear whether if you make notes in your e-reader anybody else will ever find them, creating an accidental contact of minds.

    I agree with Debbi and others that there’s an essential difference between reading comment sites like Goodreads and browsing bookshelves, between networking and contact, between guidance and serendipity.

    I think the e-book extends _the book_, enlarges the opportunity to read (as the electric guitar extended and added to what guitars can do, without replacing the guitar). Technophiles seem to resist this, thinking the e-book must replace the paper book. Which, as Dave Ring points out, could make literacy, and the continuity of knowledge, dependent on the supply of electricity.

    As for book-books, do you know the joke about the hen and the frog?

    • Hen and frog? That’s new to me but thanks to Google, I found them.

      Is this the ghost of the frog the scorpion couldn’t keep himself from stinging?

      Frogs always seem to get the short end of things, except when they’re courtin’.

  17. The thing about ereaders and the apps that mimic them is that each one is a little different, and each may become a little (or a lot) different from its previous incarnation, at the whim of whoever owns/controls/writes it.

    For example, Ursula says:

    …though am still not clear whether if you make notes in your e-reader anybody else will ever find them, creating an accidental contact of minds.

    and the reply to that is “it depends.” For example: The Kindle has a note-taking and highlighting ability that can be made public on the website, if the Kindle owner chooses to make the notes and highlights public.

    However, when I went looking for marginalia (notes), I found that many books’ note-displaying capabilities had been taken over as the equivalent of chat rooms and that the chatting had little or nothing to do with the book, and oftentimes was incomprehensible to someone not already a member of the chatting group. It was often also quite vulgar, which gets very boring very fast even if you have a clue what they’re talking about.

    Anyone who runs a blog site is familiar with comment spam. Reading ebook marginalia was like reading endless screens of comment spam. And sometimes it actually was comment spam. (Endless lines of incoherent gibberish interspersed with URLs for pirated famous-brand handbags or off-brand Viagra.)

    I’m sure there are lots of ebooks with useful and interesting marginalia, but a random selection didn’t produce any examples.


  18. One of the most interesting ways I have accidentally discovered a book is allowing my daughter to choose something randomly from the bookshelves on the library. When she was two, the books were from the lower shelves. Now she is eleven, she reaches higher up. She’s made some truly horrifying choices and some absolutely wonderful ones.

    When not reading her picks, I browse my friend’s bookshelves on Goodreads, or read the book of the month from one of the clubs I belong to.

    I’m not interested in trying the note sharing software/capabilities on my e-reader for the reason stated by one of the comments above: I can so easily imagine such notes devolving into unrelated conversation or opinion and not really adding to my experience of the book.

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  20. Goodreads (and LibraryThing and other sites of that type) do try to restore the Accidental Discovery part of the reading lifestyle. But as far as I can tell, these avenues have only managed to restore about three percent of the amount represented by the old-fashioned browsing in bookstores, drugstore paperback spindle racks, library shelves, etc. I’m not picking three percent out of the air. Someone recently did a study on it. People mainly use Goodreads to find out more about authors or books they have already become aware of. They’re not actually browsing in the old sense. I’m happy to see from the responders here that SOME people do genuinely browse at Goodreads. I doubt you realize how rare you are.

  21. I find e-books to be useful. I worry, however, about the way that our next generations of readers will respond to e-books, particularly children growing up in an environment in which material book culture may not be their main way of experiencing “reading”. Despite the popularity of the Kindle, I would guess that a majority are not reading e-books on dedicated e-readers. Many are reading on the iPad, netbooks, even smartphones. Phone screens are getting larger and Amazon has rolled out a line of multi-use tablets. The dedicated e-reader seems to be going the way of the dedicated video game handheld and the digital camera.

    For children, if a storybook is just another type of icon on a multimedia platform, it could potentially lose the charm that many find in the material book. This charm is indeed a form of fetishism of the material. For many readers, however, it has helped to make libraries comfortable places, to make book browsing a real pleasure, and so on. On media platforms, books become something ethereal and are competing with games, video, and so on. Many app games have segments that are “book-like” – static images and text. I am currently living outside of the English-speaking world and have a hard time getting English books to read with my son. My iPad has been great in many ways. I can almost instantly access books that I need for research but do not necessarily want to add to my collection of thousands of books gathering dust in an office continents away. I worry, however, that for my four-year-old, a “book” isn’t the narrative+codex that we recognize but an indistinct choice among many media options and ways of experiencing image and text. How could this shape his relationship with books and can it lead a love of books and the cultivation of lifetime reading habits that my generation would recognize?

    Adults who are lifetime readers find a lot to like in e-books. For children who have never known anything but, however, the e-reader media experience, if not the e-books themselves, might make the library into something confusing and baroque. Senses shape a child’s world. The touch, smell, and vibrancy of books, the gravity of a large hardcover, the way that the towering bookshelves of parents or grandparents create mysteries and ambitions… these all shape child readers. Can these readers survive the “one click to download” and the e-book folder in the corner under Ninja Fishing?

  22. The other thing you lose with ebooks is the capacity to access them over time given changing digital media. To build a really solid library, you need for the medium to stay the same over centuries. Books have done that, but no other storage medium has managed. Wax cylinders became vinyl records became cassette tapes, 8 track, cds, dvds, mp3s. Floppy disks went from 8″ to 3.5″ to replaced by usb drives. We don’t know yet what the evolution of the ebook will be, but we do know that you can lose rights or access to it very easily in many ways. So far bound printed books on paper for longevity can’t be beat.

    • I have thousands of printed books, many of them bought used (almost always because they were out of print); most of them are disintegrating, especially the mass-market paperbacks and the cheaply produced book club hardcovers, even the ones bought new. The chief problem with persistence of digital media is DRM (not used, thank you thank you, at BVC). There are other problems, but they seem to me to be easier to solve than the brittleness of paper. I’ve loved browsing library stacks and book store shelves for most of my long life, but I’ve had far more success at accidental discovery by browsing online–not just book sellers but blogs and reference sites and so on. I despise marginalia unless they’re several hundred years old; like ancient graffiti, the older they are, the more charming and informative.

  23. Now that Goodreads shall be purchased by Amazon, I wonder if the things we go to Goodreads for will disappear, or be improved? I know one person who has already deleted their Goodreads account. Privacy trumps seeing the comments and choices of other people.

  24. I was a school librarian in “days of yore”. Readers aged 12-15 used to look in the old fashioned library card to see who had read the book. If they liked someone named on the card they’d decide the book was worth reading. Was that a precurser to facebook likes?

  25. It’d be pretty gr8 if those producing e-books took the time to include a simple notation program. In that way, the sense of continuity, history, and discovery one encounters finding those little margin notes you discuss could be preserved.

    • This is a feature of the ebook reader (hardware or software), not the ebook itself, so there’s nothing BVC can do to provide this feature if the ebook reader vendor (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, or Apple) doesn’t. The good news is that I believe all of these ebook readers do include a notation feature, and you can even share notations with other readers. For example, in the Kindle FAQ (, look for information on Public Notes and Popular Highlights.

  26. M. Penny. I like your point. But what if..what if..these digitally raised kids upon finding a library would say instead…something like “Oh wow, you can hold these and turn pages and and and smell them and see who owned them and take them home and put them under your pillow’? Yeah, I doubt it too. It will take a much longer time for libraries to become a cult, in thing.
    When Millenniums can talk to thousands of people at one time with five messaging media open at one time, they are in a whole different realm than Ursula, Orion or we are.

    They remind me a little of the children in Childhood’s End.

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  28. Writer Arthur Koestler called that shelf-elf which places randomly useful content before our eyes, the “library angel.” By mining our existing preferences and prejudices to suggest what we like, what will re-enforce our confirmation bias into self-absorbed feedback loops which will become a divisive force in our culture just as Eli Pariser’s “Filter Bubbles” fragment our understanding of web content.

    The most important “thingness” that physical books give us is their relative immutability. Books are regularly mistranslated, edited, burned and misinterpreted to fit short-lived cultural and political whims. But even books that were banned two-thousand years ago, such as The Book of Judas, eventually find their way to the reader. If I read the same book as you or Mrs. Le Guin, there is a core coherence which comes from the mind of the author to each of us. There is an overlap to our common understanding of the book which transcends our short lives and cultural manias. I may understand a book differently from you based on my life experiences and the way my mind works, but it remains the same book, ready for another mind to understand it in the way the author meant.

    Not so with e-books. Just as Amazon, Netflix, Itunes and Google offer us content based on our biases, e-books will be edited to suit the preferences of their reader. Those easily offended will be offered alternative versions of “Absolutely Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, “Slaughterhouse-Five”, “Huckleberry Finn” and religious texts from those who aren’t. Censorship will no longer be a problem because all books will be censored either entirely or word by word. (I am working on a novel based around this concept, if Mrs. Le Guin doesn’t beat me to it!)