Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Empty Shelves

Whenever I enter the house of someone who I have just met, I look for defining features. What books are on their shelves? What CD’s do they listen to? What art is on their walls?

I recently visited two long-time friends. They are book-people and bookcases adorn every room. Books spill out onto the floor, a pile sits in the bathroom, and their garage, where I have crashed at various times of my life, has precarious towers of crumple covered books. Their walls are also covered in pictures. They are ‘stuff’ people.

Both these people are tech savvy. Their music has long been stored on iPods and there are hardly any audio footprints around the house except for iPod docking stations. But on this visit I was confronted by two paper bags full of books and piles of others sorted on their dinning room table.

“We are in the middle of a project,” one offers apologetically.

“We have almost everything digital now,” the iPad partner offered with the confidence unmoved by the appearance of the iPad 2 within a couple of months since he first brandished his new toy in my house.


A few days later I picked up my youngest son from a play date with a friend whose parents I had not met. Their house was the opposite to my friends: quite empty in comparison. There was a solitary bookcase, stored asthetically with art books sorted by size, and a few modern eye-catching pictures adorned the walls of cafes and jazz musicians.

What did I think of these people? What was my first impression and what were my frames of reference? I had few books to scan, no CD’s and little in the way of art.


It was tough. I had no choice. I had to resort to conversation. In a world of texting and tweeting, of Facebook profiles and LinkedIn status, will the empty shelves provide the last frontier of face-to-face communication?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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One thought on “Empty Shelves

  1. Well, let’s see, I easily have a couple of thousand dvd’s covering one wall of my house. I have books of all varieties throughout the house, then some in storage. There are record albums, cassettes, cds and all of the players to go with them scattered about. My video games range from the Atari to the Wii.

    You’re welcome to come and inspect anytime. 🙂

    You can even come just for the conversation!

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