Saturday, August 06, 2011



And some people think philosophers are useless:

You can never be too thin or too rich, they say. But perhaps you can have too many books. How many is too many? ...

It is not my purpose to prescribe limits on the possession of books. Instead I aim only to provide a handy measure by which readers may decide for themselves whether their acquisitive instincts have exceeded the bounds of prudence.

To this end I offer the Shelf Encumbrance Index.

In theory it is easily calculated. You have merely to determine, for each book in your collection, how many other books must be moved so as to permit that book to be available for reading. Call that its "encumbrance". Divide the total encumbrance of all your books taken together by the number of books, and that will be the SEI. In the ideal library it is zero: no book is encumbered. Likewise the SEI of an e-library is always, sadly, zero. ...

In real life there will be complications. For example, in the library above some books are not shelved but rather stacked. Clearly the encumbrance of a book beneath the stack, if it cannot be extracted without disturbing the stack, will be at least as great as the number of books in the stack. On the other hand, the encumbrance of a book within the stack will vary. A bit of thought shows that the SEI for a stack of height n will be (n–1)/2. In yet more complicated situations empirical tests may be required.
I shudder at the thought of calculating my SEI.

No, no, no, ereaders also have an SEI:

the Screen Exit Index.

How many screens do you have to click through to get to the book(s) you are looking for?

This is how I'm going to get carpal tunnel syndrome.

-- pew sitter
I'm afraid I am still resisting the Great Evil out to Destroy Books and have no idea how ereaders work. I'm somewhat comforted that there are drawbacks that we Luddites can cling to.

didn't Plato bitch about how writing would destroy memories?

Actually I find a lot of drawbacks to ereaders, and I still have a significant Shelf Encumbrance Index (really trying to keep the stacks off the floor, but you know how that goes).

If the book is scholarly or reference material, I much prefer paper -- easier to make notes on paper and in some ways paper is still easier to navigate. Also poetry collections are better on paper.

If it's a leisure read, I prefer the e-reader, mainly because I no longer have to take a duffel bag of books with me when I go to the beach. Plus, I spend a lot of time waiting for teenagers to finish meets and rehearsals and whatnot. The Kindle goes right in the purse, which has raised my Quality of Waiting Around Index significantly.

-- pew sitter
I follow the principle, that if it is easier to find the book in the library than to find it on my own shelves, then I have too many books.
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