Week 10: Musings on Ownership (& Minimalism!)

An example which comes to mind for this week’s discussion question took place a few years ago in my Book History seminar with Scott Schofield. We were studying digital texts, and I wanted to compare a couple print editions of Kerouac’s On the Road (namely the first edition and the 50th anniversary “Original Scroll” edition) to the digital “Amplified Edition” (http://www.penguin.com/static/pages/features/amplified_editions/on_the_road.php). This e-edition was only available for iPads, and since I didn’t have one at the time, I borrowed one from the Inforum. I purchased it on the device from the App Store, and used it as needed for my paper. The issue came about when I had to return the iPad and realized that I would likely be saying goodbye to my purchase. There may have been some way (or maybe there still is?) to access it through iTunes, since I believe it was connected with my Apple ID, but I never figured it out. I sometimes wonder if the app is still on that Inforum iPad, and if anyone ever opens it up and gets some use out of it (I hope so!).

This fleeting period of ownership got me thinking about how much we ever really own things. A recent foray into minimalism has shifted the way I think about how humans relate to material objects, and whether or not this relationship is always entirely healthy. Do we own things, or do they own us? In many cases we use things to define our identities, which I would argue can be dangerous: what happens when our identities or interests change? An example which was discussed in class some weeks ago is the phenomenon of humans being the only species to collect books we don’t read (ha ha). This is very true though– we place books on our shelves to create a certain identity for ourselves, but how authentic is that identity if we have never (and may never) read them? For this reason, and a million others, I love libraries. We can read a book without feeling tied to it for life.

Tool libraries and “libraries of things” are a great way to extend this model to material items other than books. Similarly, I know of some minimalists who use Craigslist as a storage locker (check out these guys: http://www.theminimalists.com/). That is, they sell an item which they rarely use (say, a table saw), and if they find themselves needing one again, they just buy another from Craigslist, and sell it right back for the same price when they are done. I think this notion of borrowing things rather than owning them is useful when contemplating how we should be interacting with objects.

On a more bookish note (or e-bookish note), it makes me think of how we borrow e-books from libraries. So many non-library folks simply don’t understand why there are limits on how many people can borrow an e-book at once, and why they can only borrow it for as long as a regular library book. They think that since it is a digital version, there should be an endless supply of copies and loan periods. While we know there is a simple answer related to copyright laws, I think their impatience with the system exposes some of the unhealthy habits we are developing in the digital world, namely that we want things now and we want them without limits. I wonder where we will find ourselves if we continue to indulge these “more more more” ideologies of consumption.

4 thoughts on “Week 10: Musings on Ownership (& Minimalism!)”

  1. I’ve recently been forced to rethink ownership and objects but mainly because of downsizing. It was surprisingly freeing to get rid of “things,” especially since I needed to be surrounded by objects when I was younger. I like your point about libraries and eBooks, however. The concept of ownership is changing but that doesn’t always benefit institutions that provide access.

    1. Hi Jelena,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think it is interesting how the changing concept of ownership has a variety of implications, good and bad, depending on context. In the case of libraries and e-books, it is not exactly as black and white as with print books, especially to users who find these new concepts confusing. I am sure explaining copyright laws to users has been one of the curveballs thrown at librarians in this arena.

      If you are interested in minimalism and the philosophy behind it, check out The Minimalists podcast 🙂

      –Steph

  2. I appreciate your observation that library users expect there to be a limitless supply of eBooks to borrow, as I have experienced this complaint first-hand, many times. While I agree this reflects contemporary consumer-culture’s desire for instant gratification, I find it troubling that eBook publishers treat digital files as if they were print books. We know that libraries must re-purchase eBooks every couple of years as this is supposedly the average shelf-life of a circulating print copy. As we have noted in class, print and digital copies of texts are not interchangeable… I only wish publishing companies would reflect this in their pricing.

  3. Hi Holly,

    I think that’s a really good point regarding the pricing of e-books by publishing companies. I wonder if they are doing a disservice to themselves and the public success of e-books by limiting access in this way. I find that if people try out e-books and have a bad experience, they are wont to try them again, and simply return to the “tried, tested, and true” model of print books.

    –Steph

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