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A Passion for Real Books
More and more, I find my library colleagues coming to me and singing the praises of their e-book readers. From pockets, briefcases, or knapsacks they draw a tiny glowing gadget---as nifty as Captain Kirk’s phaser--and proceed to demonstrate its multiple virtues. A whole book can be downloaded in seconds. You can carry an entire library in a tiny, plastic box. With a book on your iPhone, you can use one finger to slide from screen to screen, never having to turn an actual page again. These exchanges with my colleagues inevitably remind me of that scene in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the hero’s girlfriend, replaced by a pod, wakes up with a strange gleam in her eye and announces that he should join them. It’s easy. It doesn’t hurt. You’ll like it.
Maybe I’ve spent too much of my life with real books. Above and beyond the actual experience of reading, I like the heft of books in my hands. I like the soft rustle of pages as I take them between thumb and forefinger and flip them over. I am even fond of the slightly musty smell of old, well-used books. What I distrust are gadgets. The things which are supposed to make our lives smoother and simpler tend to take them over, gobbling up time, energy, and concentration until we’re dominated by them. I keep asking why a real book won’t do. For about ten dollars I could buy a paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice. For a lot less, I could download Pride and Prejudice and Zombies onto my e-book reader, although the reader itself might cost three hundred dollars. True, after a decade of use the paperback pages will start to yellow a bit, and the binding will not be as tight as when it started out, but what do you think the odds are that in ten years your e-book reader isn’t going to be as obsolete as an Edsel? Someday people will be digging up our electronic detritus the way we dig up ammonites and trilobites.
Are books really evolving into some new form--to meet some overwhelming demand or satisfy some imperative law of nature--or are we all being sold yet another thing we don’t really need?
I must state that my employer is a great purveyor of e-books, which can be borrowed with nothing but a library card pin number. This, I think, is a good thing, for if mobile technology is the future, and people really do want books glowing out of little screens, then the library should be in the vanguard of meeting that need. Anything which makes more books available to more people should not be quibbled about, and any qualms I have about the gadgetry involved are purely personal and probably idiosyncratic.
But it is real books which continue to be my passion. That is why I am fortunate to be working in a place where books are still the principal currency. From my vantage point in the General Research Division, I regard the books which surround me as a bubbling cauldron of life and energy. There are books to satisfy all sorts of purposes, some to read, some for research, and others which are so artfully designed they seem to exist as a sensual experience, a mechanism for conveying visual and tactile pleasure. To choose one example, I remember an encounter with the Rare Book Division’s King Lear, designed, illustrated, printed, and bound by Claire Van Vliet, the founder of the Janus Press. If Shakespeare is what you want, he can of course be read in a cheap paperback, a college textbook, or a collected works that has been gathering dust on the family bookcase for generations; but why not the most luxurious edition imaginable, with hand-made paper, a binding of white pigskin and birch boards, and eloquent woodcut illustrations?
I am convinced that particular books develop individual personalities as they are being read. It is difficult to describe (unless you’ve experienced it for yourself) the physical relationship that develops between a reader and the book he or she happens to be reading. Especially if it’s one of those satisfyingly plump books that you carry around from place to place over a period of weeks or months. If I’ve read and enjoyed a certain novel in a particular edition, going back to the same novel at a later date but in a different edition can be a disconcerting if not impossible experience. For the past few months I’ve devoted myself to rereading Jane Austen’s six novels, which I personally own in the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Well, strictly speaking, this attractive, durable set belongs to my wife; but such distinctions have long since disappeared in the equality of marriage, and I’ve read each of these volumes so often they now feel like comfortable old friends. This time, however, as mutual Jane Austen devotees, my wife and I decided to read the works together in order to discuss and compare our observations and reactions as they arose. This meant I had to go to the library and find copies of my own. I came upon the Norton Critical editions, there for the borrowing. These are useful, convenient, not unattractive paperbacks, easy on the eye, comfortable in the hand, with lots of important supplementary material. . .but reading them just didn’t feel right. Although they served the purpose, the familiar Oxford copies kept crying out to me.
There is always a place for strictly functional paperback novels. Even the shabbiest can accrue personal memories of the places they were read and the circumstances of your life at the time of reading. For example, I have a perfectly serviceable Vintage paperback of Buddenbrooks. It is still possible (but honestly doubtful) that I’ll return to Thomas Mann; but whenever I notice this book on my shelf, it immediately and vividly evokes a long-ago vacation trip I took to Maine. Yes, it is a long way from Mann to Maine, but this was the book I had with me, all 800-odd pages of it; and at the time this multigenerational story of the downfall of a German mercantile family seemed like perfect vacation reading (even if it now strikes me as an odd choice). Whenever I consider shedding this book, I remember turning its pages while I sat on the scintillating sands of a Maine beach, the exact burnished quality of the afternoon light comes back to me, and I even detect a certain salty tang in the air. I always end up returning the book to its shelf.
Long ago, I read the Jack Finney novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that ultimate parable of paranoia and conformity. I seem to recall that it ends on a hopeful note, with the aliens who have been replacing townspeople with perfect replicas packing up and going back where they came from. More vivid in my mind is the pessimistic note struck by the original film. So, brag to me about your e-book readers if you must; but don’t be surprised if, like the hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I turn away from you in horror and race wildly onto the street or highway, shouting, “You’re next! You’re next! YOU’RE NEXT!”