Burning All My Books

My shelves are empty. The half-dozen Billy Bookcases I bought from Ikea are now little more than scrap. I have burned my books. A bonfire of ideas and ideals.

My bookshelves used to burst at the seams.
Every individual shelf bowed violently from the over-stuffed mass of paperbacks squeezed onto it.
Shakespeare rubbed up with Straczinsky.
A complete set of Terry Pratchett was enviously glowered at by a patchy Enid Blyton collection.
Half-read oddities nestled with well worn volumes. A copy of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" which taught me how to read as a child occupying the same shelf as the a Camille Paglia book purchased solely to make me look intellectual. I somehow acquired two copies of Machiavelli's "The Prince". What I want to convey to you is that I have a deep and abiding love for books. That is why I must burn them.

Every time I find an ebook copy of a book I have on my shelf, the ebook version is downloaded - redundantly backed up - and placed in my Calibre library. The physical book is burned.

Nazi Book Burning

Please, don't get me wrong. I'm not engaging in a Fahrenheit 451 orgy of destruction. Each physical book is carefully checked and then given to a charity shop so it can be enjoyed anew by someone else. I'm not a monster! I even gift-aid my donations.

But, for a while, it felt like I was doing something terrible. Destroying or disrespecting books is a secular sin - that's what comes of having an English teacher for a parent. I'm trying to be a hip, 21st century guy and live digitally - but I have a heap of 20th century baggage (and a bunch of monkey-brained concepts) which are hard to let go of.

Having physical stuff feels good. Ultimately though, digital stuff is better. More convenient, easier to save in case of a fire, more useful, and takes up less space. I'm doing to my books what I did to my CDs - going 100% digital.

But What About The Smell Of Books?

Throughout the web, you'll see people saying "Oh! But reading an ebook doesn't feel the same! You don't get same smell as old books! They're cold and soulless."

This is nonsense. Find an ebook copy of the book you loved as a child. After a minute, you'll be right inside Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and won't care whether the words are on eink or written on papyrus.

CDs are better at reproducing music than vinyl records ever were. DVDs are better than VHS. Ebooks are better than physical books. They contain the same words, the same stories and ideas, they entertain and delight in exactly the same way.

And now, I can carry my whole library with me wherever I go.

What Is A Library For?

Libraries have many ancillary functions that they've developed over the years. At their core, they are no more than a semi-convenient warehouse for books.

I asked my local library how many books they had - this was their response.

(I assume that's physical volumes rather than distinct titles as they have duplicate copies of popular books.)

How Many Books Could a Bookchuck Chuck?

Could I carry on my Kindle every single book that my local library holds?

Ebooks come in various file sizes. A typical novel weighs in at under 500KB. An illustrated book is typically under 3MB. A comic - or other work with a large quantity of images - could be over 100MB.

Judging from my collection, the average ebook file is around 1MB. Which is rather convenient for our calculations.

Woking Library has 74,805 books. At 1MB each - that's 73GB of files.

Buying a 75GB hard disk today is almost impossible. The smallest size readily available is 1TB. That's 1024GB. Or, enough to hold 1,048,576 typical ebook. Slightly shy of the total number of books held by all the libraries in the county.

Total cost for a 1TB external hard drive? Around £60. Less than the price of a couple of cheap bookshelves.

If you wanted to carry the books on a MicroSD card - suitable for a nook or other ereader - then a 32GB card will set you back £30. You could carry around 90,000 ebooks with you for less than £100.

Realistically, though, how many books can you read in your lifetime? Even on holiday with nothing to do but laze on a beach and read - I manage about one book per day.

Were I to live to 100 years of age, and read one book per day, every day. I would barely be able to fill a single 32GB MicroSD card.

Everything I've ever read could fit on one of these.
MicroSD card 32GB

What's My Point?

I have none. Thank you for reading anyway.

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29 thoughts on “Burning All My Books”

  1. Out of curiosity, are there any books that you are keeping? E.g. books that were gifts or have been signed? I would quite happily get rid of some of my collection but I've quite a few books where what is important is not the content but the book itself.

    1. Oh gods yes!

      Anything signed is kept.
      The Terry Pratchetts I'm finding really hard to let go of because they took me so long to get (and I now have all of them digitally).
      There are a handful of books which have a huge emotional resonance (like my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is the first book I remember reading).

      However, the vast majority are kept because there is currently no electronic edition (legitimate or otherwise). I think publishers are missing out by not speeding up the digital publication of their back-catalogue.


  2. Stan says:


    Didn't you think to sell the books or give them away, or ask the library not how many they have, but if they want your books? Or ask more libraries untill you find the one that needs books? Or put them near your house so that anyone could take them? Or use http://uk.freecycle.org/ to find people who would be interested to take your books? Or at least just recycle them?

    Are you proud of yourself for finding an effective way of getting rid of books? Do you equate yourself with fascists - why did you put the photo?

    So do you burn your books or do you give them all to a charity shop?

    So, if you still find that some books deserve to be burnt, it is not clever. And it is not clever to excuse yourself with showing how effective a microSВ card may be.

    1. Hi Stan,

      Thanks for the comment. As I say in the post, I am donating the books to charity. I am using a simile to describe how giving books away makes me feel.

  3. says:

    Not that this impacts on your overall point particularly, but time for pedants' corner:

    "The smallest [hard drive] size readily available is 1TB. That’s 1024GB."

    Sadly disk manufacturers don't use base 2 arithmetic, so this isn't quite true. Your 1TB drive will only hold ~1 million books, not ~1.05 million. And either way, I'd call that slightly more than half the county's collection, rather than 'slightly shy' of all of it.

    I've never heard anyone say they missed the smell of paper books before, but I am starting to find the lack of ease of 'flicking back/through' in an ebook to be actually quite annoying. It's hard to skip back '20 or so' pages to show someone a thing you read earlier, or skip to the right place in an ebook to find that bit you remember the context but not page number of. I have to admit that this is not a use case I would have realised I had so frequently until it was being thwarted!

    1. Good points. Regarding the skipping back and forth issue - I find the chapter markers a great help. More than that, I use the search function to skip to a particular passage I remember.

  4. says:

    If I adopted the same policy (i.e. replace non-digital with digital) for books, I'd still have most of my books. I randomly pulled a stack of books off my shelves and attempted to find them as ebooks a while back. I was very liberal in my searching: checking both legal and illegal sources, DRM and not, Kindle and ePub. Even so, I only had a 10-20% hit rate.

    And I say that as someone who loves ebooks and doesn't get all fusty and emotional about books (when you have to carry a big sack of them across London, you quickly lose any sentimental attachment to dead tree as a format).

  5. says:

    I wonder if printed material will one be seen the same way that some folks look at the use of leather in clothing today: wasteful, slightly cruel and unnecessary.

  6. Abdullah Alshalabi says:

    Hi Terence,

    Good post, and I agree with most of it. But, I need to check if I understood correctly. When you said "Every time I find an ebook copy of a book I have on my shelf, the ebook version is downloaded", did you me that you re-bought every single book again, but in an e-version?? Wouldn't it be cheaper if you could scan all of your books and convert them to ebooks?

    I think we should have a company doing this. BTW I just searched in google and found this http://www.blueleaf-book-scanning.com. However, their prices seems higher than buying the ebook from Amazon!!!


  7. says:

    When your ebook reader breaks, or you can't buy a new laptop, or there's no power, I'll still be reading a book, by candlelight.

    Slightly extreme counter-argument, I know, but I always detect the whiff of techno-narcissism whenever ebooks come up. What if the internet, electronic publishing etc. is just a blip, part of the cheap energy orgy that fossil fuels has enabled? They won't be very useful under certain future scenarios.

    1. Hi Tim,

      I must confess, that has bothered me a bit. Luckily eink is so energy efficient that it can be solar charged very quickly. I've got a Freeloader solar charger which is more than adequate at soaking up sunlight and dispensing it into my ebooks.

      Come the apocalypse, I would rather grab an ebook and run for the hills than try to lug several kilos of highly combustible, non-water-resistant, paper. But that's just me 🙂

      Thanks for the comment,


      1. says:

        It's less "eco-friendliness" than "sustainability" or "resilience"*: can these things continue?

        Batteries wear out, lithium for new ones is hard to come by, formats change (you're on safer ground with DRM-free stuff from Gutenberg, but still).

        Apocalypse is but one possibility. A gradual descent into a future with less readily-available energy is another. No running for the hills required, but energy-free or -lite entertainment and learning might be useful.

        * I realise these are buzzwords at the moment. Doesn't mean they aren't important.

        1. I don't disagree with any of your points, but I don't feel that it's prudent to live life as though everything could fall away.

          The sustainability is the bigger issue. Solar charging should take care of the battery / energy scarcity issue.

          And I strip any DRM on the books as a matter of course.

          I guess what I'm saying is, come the dawn of your scenario, I'd have to buy more paper books.

          For now though, I'm revelling in the fact that I have more space in my apartment and that my next house move is going to be significantly easier.


          1. says:

            Buy more books, or share more books with friends etc.

            Decluttering and digitisation is good; you've clearly thought about the issues, unlike many who seem to have an entirely uncritical acceptance of "digital everything is amazing and better and there is no downside whatsoever".

            Apart from all that, though, there's more recoverable audio information on a piece of vinyl than on a CD, due to sample rates 🙂 Records, however, are a right arse to lug to DJing gigs.

    2. David Knowles says:

      I suspect it will be cheaper energy wise to keep digital e-books than to go chopping down trees in a forest and do all the processes that require that tree to be turn into paper, then you got to make the ink, transport both to the printing press an then print the book then transport that book to the shops. Then people need to go to the shops to get book. All of that requires some form of energy and probably a lot more than simply downloading a book of a server.

      When you take the energy costs of operating a library and book shops into account it probably work out even cheaper.

      Lithium is not that rare an lithium batteries are fully recyclable. We just have not needed much of it in the past to justify mining large quantities of it. Which is why only China brother to do it on a large scale. Given the rise in demand, we will likely start large scale mining in other countries and even in pacific ocean.

  8. Yes, I looked into those book scanning services a while ago. Reasonable enough value if you're based in the same country (US and Japan afaict) but not practical otherwise.

    I've been playing a game of chicken so far...do I throw the books or out or does a UK service come along to scan them. But it's increasingly looking like I also ditch the physical copies.

  9. based on the pictures, I find it so surprising that there's no digital edition of "How to Fossilize your Hamster"!

    That said: I am also slowly selling or giving away paper books, so completely see your point. I think we'll always keep some around for emotional purposes but... for most reading, it's so much simple to just have digital...

  10. Exactly the transition I'm trying to make. I keep a variety of redundant items due to sentimental value and the lingering dread of needing them in the future for some obscure reason, long after they have been discarded.

    I think the dream is to, one day, be entirely paper free, a reality that is drawing closer with the advent of the iPad, Evernote and the Kindle.

  11. says:

    I can't believe you burnt all your books! Oh hang on, you didnt...I can't believe so many people didn't get past the headline and are criticising you for actually burning all your books!

    I agree with most of the post - my frustration with ebooks is not being able to see how many actual screens of text are left till the end of a chapter - or section break.

    A simple solution would be a thumbnail preview of the next 12 pages on the screen, so you could see the outline of the text on them. Any breaks / chapters would be obvious.

    It's a partial solution to not be able to flick through the book (which I do miss). I wish they would implement it on the Kindle!

  12. said on mastodon.me.uk:

    @Edent I did much the same thing as you! And I still largely read on my phone or kindle or listen to the audiobook. But I also have acquired mostly a lending library of academic books associated with my field. And to be honest I’m less worried about the apocalypse than I am about Amazon suddenly pivoting to something else and discontinuing support for its e-books a la Google, or removing them from my library if a publisher withdraws a deal a la TikTok music.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.me.uk
  13. said on sarcasm.stream:

    @Edent I went 100% ebook after getting my kindle keyboard in ... 2006ish I think. Especially helpful when I moved country twice.

    Have since gone completely in the other direction and now am all paper.

    Several times I have pondered the cost benefit of always getting both.

    Who knows where I'll go from here.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on sarcasm.stream
  14. said on fosstodon.org:

    @Edent 'I somehow acquired two copies of Machiavelli's "The Prince".'

    I am in that situation too, slightly concerning that one of them was bought as a present with 'I saw this and thought of you'.

    I love the tactile sensation of books too much to get rid of paper, but I am gradually replacing popular books that one of the 3 libraries near me will always have and which I only read once.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on fosstodon.org
  15. said on mastodonapp.uk:

    @Edent I did the same ~15 years ago shortly after the first kindle came out (before Amazon was seen as evil).

    I’ve since made one exception though;

    • High quality, exceptionally well designed & laid out physical books. The kind that are physical joy/experience for some reason like their choice & use of font, illustrations, etc...

    There are very few & they meet with my principal of surrounding myself with ‘the few objects that bring me the most joy’, a form of art in a sense.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodonapp.uk
  16. said on disabled.social:

    @Edent I can't read print books anymore, haven't been able to since late 2015 due to vision and balance issues. I struggled on thru my PGDip course as most books were only paper but it was a slog.

    I stopped reading books for a few years which is unlike me. Then found suitable ebooks in library, drm free and now RNIB Book share thru work. I am back to reading over 100 new books a year again.

    I'm slowly giving away my paper books but still keep the old non e stuff for now.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on disabled.social

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