The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, March 01, 2007


A loyal Marginal Revolution reader asks for discussion of:
... something I've been thinking about a lot as I pack up my house to move: Why do we buy books and videos? Doesn't it make much more sense to outsource their storage to libraries and video stores or services like Netflix?

This question is only meaningful to city dwellers, or to those with uniformly mainstream tastes in books. Most libraries, even good ones, are thinly stocked; and anything shorter than book length is exceedingly hard to find. For examples, go to your library and try to obtain the following:
  • a Kingsley Amis book other than Lucky Jim or The Old Devils
  • the Roger Zelazny novella He Who Shapes
  • the Richard Connell story "The Most Dangerous Game"

  • Also, books are not like hamburgers, consumed once and then unneeded. Picking up a familiar book and reading just a couple of pages, to refresh its world in memory, is a valuable pleasure which cannot be obtained without a physical inventory.

    The interlocutor's case makes more sense for movies, which are more reliably consumed as units. Even here there are problems, like the mismatch between the Platonic ideal of outsourcing storage and the real nature of Netflix and its competitors, which are likely to make you watch Traffic when you are in the mood for Happy Feet. Udolpho has more, in an uncharacteristically subdued vein, here.

    [Mr. Cowen's answer is here.]