Afterthoughts: Weighty Reflections on the Digital Future

Books are wonderful. Until you have to move a whole lot of them.


As I hefted the third box of books, hoping my spine wouldn’t snap, I saw the future.

The future, I’m sad to report, is digital.

I love books. Loved them since I was a child, still love them.

But I’m serially monogamous: I love them one at a time. More is too many.

I was emptying my old office, especially the two tall bookcases. As the books piled into boxes and the boxes piled up until I had to borrow a hand truck, a simple truth dawned on me: Paper’s heavy.

And it takes up space. My intent was to cart all these books home, much to the consternation of my wife, who claimed I was trashing her house.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

The house is full of readers. We have eight bookcases, stacks of books by people’s bedsides, baskets of books by the couch. Not to mention snowdrifts of magazines everywhere.

Despite donating books to the library, despite even my habit of loaning people books that they could do anything with but return, the house was already full.

I had to throw books away, but what? Could you throw away Humble Honest Men by Bob Dye, whose funeral I attended last February? How about Saturday Night at the Pāhala Theatre, the Lois Ann Yamanaka book that announced to the world local literature had come of age? Maybe you could, but not I.

I made some hard choices. I threw away the copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses I read twice in college, again for my graduate seminar in Joyce. Later, I taught it to a UH English class, which was surprisingly eager to decipher Joyce’s prose, since, in that not-so-distant past, high literacy was still a much-sought-after accomplishment.

My paperback Ulysses was scrawled with notes and cross-references. But it was moldy, dusty, the binding held together with red duct tape. Future Joyce scholars will have to re-create the stunning insights that went into the trash bin. Something had to go and, besides, I had a newer copy.

I began wishing all the text on my bookshelves was parked on a hard drive somewhere, searchable, instantly available. I’ve gotten everyone in my house a Kindle, in hopes that in three to five years, the words that overflow my house on paper will instead will be stored on Amazon’s server somewhere. So far, this has only slowed the influx.

All of us are in this funny transitional period between analog and digital. Most of the music that used to pile up in slippery stacks all over the house is now on iPods. The boxes of old photo prints still jam the back hall closet, but, really, I am going to get around to scanning them one of these weekends.

All of this stuff will go onto hard drives, and, when terabytes seem insufficient, we will store them on the magic computer cloud from which we can fetch them at will instantly.

Of course, that’s until civilization falters and the cyberbarbarians unplug the world’s servers. When that happens, it will make the burning of the library at Alexandria look like a wienie roast.       

Kathryn Drury Wagner is on maternity leave.  While she’s away, we’ll be running guest columns from our editors.


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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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