Friday, September 24, 2010

When Is a Book Not a Book?

I recently added a badge (to the right) pledging to read the printed word. The controversy over a “real” book as opposed to an e-book shows no signs of ending, with many of us bemoaning the potential loss of books to electronic devices. “A Kindle is not a book!!” the deepest part of me cries.

In a recent post on her wonderful site, Idearella lists some of the reasons she prefers an actual book. Some of our thinking runs along the same lines. She has inspired me to create my own list of just why it matters so much to me that I hold a book rather than a machine. It is a short list, but it is passionate.

1) The Joy of Simply Holding a Book

My earliest happy memories…

It could have been a Little Golden Book of my own or one of my grandfather’s childhood books or a book at the library, but I can vividly remember the sheer thrill I got simply from holding a book in my hands. Beyond the promise of being carried away, for me there is a tactile symphony attached to every book.

The Little Golden Books enthralled me with their bountiful illustrations, stretched across every page. I even memorized the tiny little drawings that decorated the back inside cover of each one. The gold colored foil on the spines cracked in the early days of reading, but gradually softened to open quietly. The pages eventually would not turn as sharply, the edges smoothed by hundreds of turnings. It became familiar, soft, comforting.

The books at my grandparent’s apartment were a mixed bag, some from my grandfather’s turn of the century childhood, some from my aunts, but all hard covers, with scratchy cloth bindings. The illustrations were soft and dreamy, soft focused idealizations of the past. The books were well worn from much handling, but heavy, so I would usually prop them up with a pillow as I read.

There was nothing like new library books. Covered with clear plastic wrappings to protect the pristine new cover from grubby little fingers, these books crackled as you opened them and the crisp pages snapped past as you read. Set aside on a special table, it was always a thrill to see when the table had been replenished and a whole new set of possibilities awaited me. The books on the shelves were less impeccable, having been read more often, but finding one I hadn’t read yet was a special delight. Sliding it out of its spot, carrying it to the circulation desk, opening up the back to the card pocket, every step of the ritual involved touching the book. Each motion had its own feel, familiarity, promise.

2) The Human Connection

Every book itself tells a story…

Whether it has crossed several weeks or many years, every book is distinct in its journey to your hands, it bears its own marks. Before you even open the cover, a book tells a story of where it has been. You can see it and feel it. That is an integral part of the experience for me.

A new book still intimidates me just a tiny bit, although there is definitely something special about being the first person ever to turn those pages. But it is the old books that I truly love. I have so many that I have picked up at second hand bookstores or book fairs. There is the unique scent of aging paper, marks along the way on the covers and the pages that give little clues about who was there before you. Technically, for value, we are never supposed to write in a book. But I am always so touched to find a loving inscription or a firmly possessive name written on the inside cover.

I like to wonder what they thought of the book. Did they enjoy the story, the writing? What about the characters? Did they seem plausible to my long-ago reader? A well worn book gives you the answer when it has obviously been read time and time again. And how has it happened that this once dearly loved possession has slipped away? That answer is part of the circle of life.

I am honored to own books that were once loved by other bookworms, it is a connection that spans decades in some cases and reflects history. I imagine the days surrounding their reading. Someone reading Mrs. Miniver in 1940 didn’t know how the War was going to end. I have a copy of a 1914 English history book full of rude, hilarious cartoons drawn in the margins by bored schoolboys almost 100 years ago. One of my favorite books is a 1935 guide to New York City. When I read it I imagine my beloved grandparents going through their normal routines in that same city in the same year while a tourist would be using the guide to explore places that were so ordinary to them. It is the closest thing we have to time travel.

People belonged to, and loved, these books.

3) Books are Beautiful in Themselves

They are just so pretty…

Millions of dollars are devoted to marketing books. Every detail, the artwork, the wording on the cover, the colors chosen, the font used, are meticulously decided based on aesthetics, with the primary focus being to make that book attractive to you.

Book covers that are illustrated with old photographs or impressionist style artwork always catch my eye and I will gravitate to that book to see if it will interest me further. I have noticed lately a trend toward very decorative covers, a throwback to Victorian days when even the page edges were decorated, either in gold leaf or with a deckled pattern.

The variety of colors and illustrations and print that go into every book is another reason to celebrate simply having an actual book in front of you.

4) Your Books Make a Statement About Who You Are

You are your books…

Anyone walking into my house has no doubt that I am a book lover. I have book shelves or piles of books in every room. They are part of the furniture, literally, and it makes me happy just seeing all those books.

Looking at the titles will tell a further story about me. Most of my books are by English authors. There are many, many mysteries. There are a lot of biographies of people that I admire because they have overcome some adversity or because they are just interesting. You’ll find history books, many about London and New York City, two of my favorite places on earth. I actually collect vintage guide books to both cities, books that tell stories of places that my relatives may have routinely visited, but do not exist anymore except in these pages.

At least half of my books are over 50 years old, but only have value to me. I have original (not first edition), vintage copies of Gone with the Wind, Random Harvest, The Grapes of Wrath, Rebecca, all those magnificent stories of the 1930’s that were made into iconic films.

You will find I like to cook, to bake especially, by seeing my collection of cook books. Before I found out I had MS, my daughter and I had planned to open our own business, a tea room. I still have the dozens of books I referred to in planning our dream. There is a whole shelf of well worn parenting books. And I have an entire collection of all the books I loved most as a child.

From room to room my books tell the story of my life, my interests, my passions. Each book is precious to me as an individual.

A story is a story and it is told through the words. I get that about e-readers. But books are stories within stories within stories, a bonus that could never be replicated by an electronic device sliding the words on a screen in front of me.

Interior of Shakespeare & Co., Paris


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cube said...

I feel as though you are talking about me when I read this post. I have loved books all of my life and get plenty of looks from people who visit and aren't used to a houseful of books.

You know what I don't understand
more than people who are moving to eReaders? People who zip through a book, then get rid of it. What is up with that?

Shorespinner said...

While I love the printed word, I'm also enjoying my Barnes and Noble nook. I have lots of good books on it, including classics, and it's very convenient for traveling. All my other books are packed away right now because we are moving, so the nook is my resource. I think of it as a personal bookshelf that I can slip into a pocketbook or bag. Depending on my mood I can read Austen, Heyer, or Brown-Taylor. The printed book replaced the handlettered manuscript and the scroll quite recently in history, so I imagine the ancients looked askance at codex books when the scroll was superceded. The online blog has replaced a handwritten personal journal or diary; ebooks are another evolution of technology. Not necessarily bad in themselves. I think whatever gets people reading is good.

Don said...

While I VERY much love to read a hard copy book, I have a new Kindle and LOVE it as well. The eBook allows you to take more with you on a trip, allows you to get books at a cheaper cost (one book series I want is ~$150.00 in hard copy, but I was able to get it unabridged fro $1.05 on the Kindle.

Both ways are good, and both ways have their time and place.

I am sure, if you were to get a Kindle, and find the titles and prices of the books, you would love it as well, and still have the hard copy books for those that you want in hard copy.

Marie said...

Cube: Cool, another book lover. :) I can't imagine a house that's not full of books. I practically need to be sedated when I contemplate 'getting rid' of a book. I am greedy, I want to keep it forever. Even ones that I didn't absolutely love. Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment!

Spinner and Don: Thank you both so much for your thoughtful comments. I totally get it and I agree, it is ultimately about the words. At the end of the day it is the beauty of the story and those journeys that we love going on. Even the most beautiful binding is meaningless if the content is empty.

The cost savings and the practicality of it makes sense as well.

But I will always prefer an actual book.

Much luck with your move Shorespinner. :) I wish you abundant happiness and blessings in your new life. You are leaving many warm and fond memories of laughter, endless cups of tea and, of course, books. ;)

Anji said...

One of my ex pupils said she remembers coming into our house when she was 11 and just remembers seeing books.

When I first moved to France I remember my disappointment on seeing a book shop and all the books being in French, which I couldn't read. I read in both languages now, so it's an excuse to have twice as many books. Another way to have acces to even more books is to have a grown up daughter who reads a lot too.

Marie said...

Anji, when I was little I would read anything I could get my hands on. I even tried reading one of my aunt's French textbooks, although obviously at 7 I couldn't read French! lol Still can't for that matter. lol But I do remember trying to sound out the words, even though they made no sense whatsoever.

I envy you being able to read in two languages. I have always wanted to learn French. Maybe it is about time.

Dirty Butter said...

Your argument for actual books is compelling. I've always been one to buy the "newest thing" when it came to computers, but I've never seen the need for an e-book. We have a house full of books, too, that tell a lot about us.

I found you on ExposeYourBlog.

bing said...

a kindle is not a book. made me smile.

there is this elation of holding a 'true' book. it feels like holding a lot to discover, and that makes me excited and nervous at the same time. excited, because i am to be fed with knowledge and info, with travel and people. nervous, because i am not sure if the purchase is worth it.

i wouldn't barter a 'real' book for an ebook, no. :-)

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