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Sortable Lists

Packing up leads me to think about interfaces and garbage.

I am throwing away a pile of things because I am moving. Probably 100 CDs have gone into the trash; mostly they were given to me, or they're obviously scratched, or I bought them for $5 at a show and I can no longer remember how the band sounded. Collectively the CDs represent thousands of hours of studio time and rehearsals. But by strangers. So I dropped them into a dull plastic bag, and they were able to catch the light one more time before starting their trip to the dump.

I remember, at 13, riding my bike at night among the empty office parks around West Chester, PA. I liked going out at night, after my mother left for work. I knew where the police sat so I was able to stay out of the eyes of the police.

These rides would last an hour or two, long enough to clear my head. Something about office parks appealed to me. All that flat concrete and orange light. The buildings rose suddenly, displacing old lots filled with dry grass. That part of Pennsylvania was undergoing some kind of volcanic economic transition. Anyway, one night on my bike I came across a few CDs someone had thrown away, sitting a few feet from a dumpster. I stopped and stared for a long moment, and thought: my God! How could someone just throw those away? It was like stumbling on a pile of jewelry. It didn't matter what was on them, but these were CDs, the new way of holding music and computer data. Rare, expensive, glittering.

Impressed by their value, I nearly brought them home but I was five years away from owning a CD player and the discs wouldn't fit in my pockets. So I left them and rode home, and now 18 years later, as I trash my own CDs, I can still see those discs on the beige concrete, reflecting the sodium lights. But all the rareness is gone; blanks cost about a quarter. Much that was once magic to me is now garbage.

My grandparents's house was filled with hardcover, clothbound volumes--all the classics, bound Poe, most of Twain, along with the James Michener. The books were permanent, part of the landscape of their rooms. Their spines were dusted on a regular basis. But mine is a paperback world. Books I bought five years ago are already brittle. Technical manuals are invalid within a year. And, as I pack them into boxes--books are heavy.

You know people by their belongings; you walk into a home and learn a great deal from the framed poster of Highway 61 Revisited, or the wolf-on-velvet hung above the sofa, ironically, semi-ironically, or not ironically at all. My grandparents read the books on their shelves, and kept them because they represented substance and history. I keep books because they comfort me, because I paid for them, because they allow me to look around my room and feel smart and engaged with the world. They are who I am.

Maybe reactions like mine are why people thought virtual reality would be a big deal: humans, the virtual-reality advocates thought, in our desire to display and control our environments in the real world, would seek to recreate and enhance our environments online. That does happen in online games, I guess. But day-to-day I don't feel some great need to see all of my iTunes represented as little icons hovering in the midst of a magical sphere. A sortable text list does me fine.

iTunes, despite all of its gray shading, looks quite a bit like a spreadsheet (or, actually, a database front-end) with a few extra controls to play music. Quite a long way from the fanatically cataloged alphabetized collections of vinyl that my friends and my parents' friends had when I grew up. And easier to search and browse--better, in fact, than almost any other interface, like those music-exploring interfaces where circles are connected to lines. People keep making those, and they never really strike me as useful. I like having a huge list and the ability to slice and dice it in simple ways.

Eventually, I guess, there will be iBooks, a way to control my library. I'll download a short story for $1.00 and a whole short story collection for $10.00, and put the stories I want to read on my still-hypothetical iReader, with its electronic paper display and high-contrast color screen. I imagine my bookshelves will become less a repository of living texts and more a kind of museum, a place to hold artifacts of particular worth or sentimental importance. A one-volume Shakespeare, a Bible, a deteriorating encyclopedia from 1850. But my personal library, the books that I'm reading now and that I refer to regularly, will look like a spreadsheet. I'll be able to download new versions of the books as they're updated, too.

Some people grieve for the lost romance of the book in this digital age. I understand them: I grew up in the era where objects became data, and have one foot in the era of things and another in the era of data. Those of the last era argue that they'll never want to read anything other than a book printed on paper, that you can't curl up with a screen. Who am I to argue with preference? But I don't care, myself. I've got 15 boxes of books packed that need to make it down the stairs. Over the next decade I'd like to get that down to two or three boxes and be mostly done with paper.

I think of my fascination, at 13, with the CD on the concrete in the office park. CDs had a brief chance to become objects of veneration, less time than vinyl, a few decades--just an eyeblink in time when compared to books, which have had over a millennia to build up mystique. So the CDs are easier to throw away. They don't resonate. But ultimately books are just as disposable (even the one I wrote).

In the 1990s we were told that the future would be filled with exotic 3-dimensional spaces that we'd explore like conquistadors. But when I look at the iTunes-spreadsheet, I feel less like a conquistador and more like an accountant. The simple two-dimensional grid that can be sorted and manipulated seems awfully handy. So, probably, my bookshelves will become lists on a screen. Yes, books will remain--we will have books for hundreds of years, because of what books mean. But already you can buy a copy of the back run of the New Yorker on DVD for $60 or so. The whole thing. The interface is basically iTunes for articles and stories--a sortable list. (I wish, in fact, that I could drag the entire run of the magazine into iTunes and mix it up with my other media.)

And sure, certainly, someone should keep a copy of the entire back run of the New Yorker on paper, somewhere. But I'd never want to move it.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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