Will E-Books Be Passed Down Through Generations?

Aug 12, 2013
Originally published on August 12, 2013 5:29 pm

After his aunt Eunice recently died, columnist Danny Heitman inherited many of her books — from Plutarch to coffee table books of her favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth.

But with the proliferation of e-books, Heitman wonders whether books will be passed on from one generation to the next.

In a recent column called “Can you inherit an e-book?,” Heitman writes:

“Passing on your favorite books to your heirs has sentimental value. But how will that work if your library is digital?”

Heitman’s 5 tips for sharing literature between generations

  1. Get your heirloom books off the shelf and into the life of the household. “I’ve given my late Aunt Eunice’s Andrew Wyeth art books a prominent place on our coffee-table,” Heitman said. “They’re a great conversation piece, and in talking about Eunice’s love of art, I hope to remind my kids of what a special person she was.”
  2. Share stories about treasured volumes. “We have a German language dictionary on our shelf, although no one in my immediate family speaks German,” said Heitman. “It once belonged to my Aunt Elvira, who taught herself how to read German literature. I use the book as a way of talking about Elvira, so that my son and daughter know about the book’s special place in our family history.”
  3. Treat your old books as living texts, not antiques. “I still have the copy of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ that I enjoyed as a child,” Heitman said. “I plan to read it aloud with my 12-year-old son. The most important thing about that book isn’t the beautiful binding or the slipcover, but the story inside.”
  4. Write your name in your books, along with a small notation of when and where you got them. “It might interest my children to know that I got a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories to read on my honeymoon, or that I studied Ralph Waldo Emerson in college,” Heitman said.
  5. When your kids outgrow favorite books, try to put a few aside when the family weeds its bookshelves. “My teenage daughter might not want her ‘American Girl’ stories right now, for example, but she might treasure them in future years, especially if she has a daughter of her own.”


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And we've heard a lot about the shift to e-books is impacting bookstores and libraries. But it also may be changing the contents or our wills because we may not have any physical books to give away. Danny Heitman has been thinking about this. He's a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate. And, Danny, can't you inherit an e-book?

DANNY HEITMAN: I guess, technically, you can, but it wouldn't very much fun, would it, Jeremy?


HEITMAN: All of this came to mind whenever my Aunt Eunice passed away recently at 94. Great lady, retired librarian. She left a lot of things behind, including a wonderful library. And her nieces and nephews, including me, we all got together at her house and we divided her books. And it was really an opportunity to reconnect with who she was because I do think our personal libraries really express who we are. They're sort of like our intellectual and our cultural DNA.

HOBSON: But what did you get from your Aunt Eunice?

HEITMAN: Lots of bird books. My brother, Tim, got the bird books. She was also very much interested in Andrew Wyeth, who's an artist that I don't really know that much about. There were his pictures on her wall all those years, and I would just walk right past them on the way to the coffee pot, didn't give him any thought at all. But in going through her coffee table books about Wyeth, I've really reconnected with that. Also, I've been reminded of her deep interest in the natural world. She'd grown up on a farm and was always deeply interested in plants and birds.

And finally, whether she was reading about poetry or about history or about art, she had an enormous curiosity. A library is really a tangible testament of intellectual adventures that we have, and it is an open invitation for us to extend that legacy. By dipping into these books and reading the same words that our ancestors read, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm glad that I was able to participate in that part of my Aunt Eunice's life.

HOBSON: Now, as you look at your own bookshelves, what do you have that you think you'll pass along?

HEITMAN: I have loved, loved, loved "Curious George" since I was a child, and sometimes I think that I had children merely to have an excuse to read "Curious George" again.


HEITMAN: And, of course, now, my children are teenagers and they're too old to read "Curious George," but I'm keeping "Curious George" on the shelf for grandchildren that are yet unborn. And I have a treasured volume of "Robinson Crusoe" that I read when I was a child. And I hope that someday my children and my grandchildren and maybe even my great-grandchildren will enjoy this volume of "Robinson Crusoe" as much as I did.

HOBSON: I have a — on the "Curious George" note, I've got a book that I've kept since I was a kid. That's the "Berenstain Bears" book when they organized their bedroom and turn it from an absolute mess into a nice, clean, organized room. And it taught me great lessons about that.


HOBSON: And I will definitely pass that one on.

HEITMAN: And it's probably a little tattered, right? And that's a part...

HOBSON: Oh, yeah.

HEITMAN: ...of the great physical legacy of the book. It's the wear and the tear, that someone's actually used that book and loved it.

HOBSON: You've got a teenage daughter and a 12-year-old son. Do you think that they'll be excited to get those books from you?

HEITMAN: They're not expressing any enthusiasm whatsoever. My daughter spends most of her time rolling her eyes at her dad.


HEITMAN: My son is 12. He's an avid reader but he likes to read dystopian fiction. And he loves to read it on his Amazon Kindle, which is great. He's - whenever we sent him off to camp, he said, gosh, let me have a Kindle to bring to camp because I can basically have an entire library on my Kindle. And that's a great thing too.

Technology is beautiful. I'm just suggesting that - this is one of the challenges of an e-book; is that maybe it's not going to allow us to extend our personal libraries as a legacy for future generations.

HOBSON: Although it does help us avoid the situation of moving boxes and boxes and boxes of very heavy books from one place to another.

HEITMAN: It's certainly does. And that's why we cull books, right? That really forces us to be choosy. And that's how we develop a culture of classics because classics are the things that from one generation to the next actually make the cut. And I think as we get more and more into a digital age, it's actually going to democratize our literature.

The great thing about digital information and the challenging thing about digital information is that nothing ever seems to get lost. And so it's a bit harder to really develop a culture of classics, I think, a hierarchy of literature whenever you read digitally.

HOBSON: Well, Danny Heitman, columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, thanks as always.

HEITMAN: It's been a pleasure, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.