A friend’s storage basement was flooded. He lost 90% of what he had accumulated over his lifetime, which was a lot: books, records, cds, magazines, all the low-cost high-content-density collectibles whose value lay in the information contained in them rather than their rarity or condition. Leaving aside Forster and Emerson’s wish to be freed of possessions, this is a minor tragedy.

So now my friend is faced with a battery of unappealing tasks:

  1. Remember the individual items present that melted together into a few large watery lumps.
  2. Provide estimates of the items’ value to the insurance company.
  3. Figure out which items to repurchase (and obtain them), and how much money to use for living expenses.

Even remembering must be painful; one purpose of a personal library is to remind you of the worthy items you’ve chosen to keep. Having to reconstruct the work of a lifetime on short notice requires rebuilding yourself from scratch, and as with all such hurried projects, pieces will be left out.

Pricing is anathema to whatever sentimental value the books and music held; they were simultaneously disposable and irreplaceable. It’s one thing to sell a book on the grounds that its role in your life is complete, another entirely to have it taken from you and needing to paper over its hiatus to preserve the illusion of continuity. And the option to re-buy, to make the choice of either retrieving what you had previously had to get back to where you were or else using the money to further your life, reduces one’s identity to commerce.

None of this will matter once everything is digitized and it’s all ephemerally available on demand for some micropayment. There will be nothing to lose. I don’t think I’ll miss the fragility, but object fetishization has been with us for so long that I have to imagine something else will take its place. (Though I guess for many people, clothes and/or high-tech gadgets already have.)