Printed books are palimpsests of our lives. They bear our imprint: we press in them the mountain-holiday flower, we spill wine, bath water, suntan lotion and even tears on them. As babies, we chew them; as adults, we curl up with them. We crack their spines for pleasure: they are unbreakable. Tibetans wind them, mummy-style, in cloth (the unwrapping itself is a prefatory meditation).
Conversely, the great travel writer Wilfred Thesiger hated book jackets and had a post-purchase ritual of removing the garish cover to expose the tactile buckram. Others cannot resist writing in books, and there are now several works on “marginalia” through the ages. To a historian or anthropologist, the book, at 500 years old, is a new-born baby. It has a long life ahead of it.
The whole piece is worth a read. E-books will be good for “providing a channel for all those low-margin reference texts, siphoning off some of our overpublishing glut in an eco-friendly way.” But books are much, much more: “an all-round psycho-sensory experience. Every reader has a few books which they love because they represent a transformation time in their lives.”
Amen to all this. My friend is a bookseller, running a store in Canterbury, UK. We used to work in a bookshop together in the King’s Road, a very happy episode of my life, despite the fact that the store itself was going bust. Being around books, and people who loved books, was a very nice way to earn a living.
It’s unnerving to think I spend more time among bits and bytes than musty papyrus these days. I can’t help thinking that the end of books as learning (as opposed to enjoyment) is on the way out. Watching today’s students with their ubiquitous laptops and ready access to massive silos of information, where libraries are just places to plug in their MacBooks and Questia is the database of choice, one wonders where the serendipidity of wandering the aisles, thumbing through books that aren’t on the reading list and spotting an interesting tome in the returned books stack, has gone.
Anyway, read Martin’s piece.