Books As Objects

I’ve lost track of how many conversations I’ve had over the subject of e-books.  Wonderful new revolution in books?  Horrible travesty attacking the very nature of reading?  Well, I’m not sure I’d come down quite at either of those extremes.  But it has made me think about books as books.  Not as keepers of stories, though they’re that of course, but books as objects.

Books, by their very nature of being books and not e-books, function in a completely different way.  And I don’t mean function in the sense that you turn pages.  I mean their physical shape, what they look like, the space they take up, the markings they hold, and all that means.

Looking over my bookshelves, some are very marked-up.  Not marked by me–I rarely write or highlight in books–or even marked by anyone else trying to note favorite passages.  But I love buying used books and I’m a frequenter of my library’s sale section, so I have quite a few books that look as though I ought to be paying late fees on them.

This isn’t true of every book I’ve bought from the library, but a number have been sold with all their library stickers and designations still intact.  So I can look along the shelves and tell you that this book used to belong to the Rancho Library, and that one came from McKinley.

I enjoy that, maybe because 95% of the books I read come out of a library.  With the volume of books I read, I would be very poor if it weren’t for the institution of libraries.  Since most of the books I’m holding from day to day have stickers on their spines and stamps on their tops, somehow I feel fond of the ones I own that look that way too–even though I’m sure it would lower their resale price.

This also says something about books as remembering objects.  Somewhere I read a quote–and I can’t remember where–about objects having value for their ability to connect us to the past, and to the future.  Books are the main objects I own that give me that feeling.  I like being able to hold a book and know that it has existed through past years.  Most of my books were bought used, so they’ve been read by other readers before me.

Those library stickers give the books history.  Rancho was my library growing up.  McKinley is my library now.  I don’t have any books with stickers from the libraries I went to in college, but I wish I did.

I love books with history, either mine or their own.  Whenever I’m buying an old book, I try to find the oldest edition I can (provided the prices are reasonable!)  I always hope to find a used book with an interesting inscription written on the flyleaf, especially something with a very old date.  I have two that are particularly good.

I have a copy of Poems by Robert Browning.  It was my grandma’s, and from the inscription I know one of her best friends gave it to her on her 18th birthday.

I also have A Window in Thrums by J. M. Barrie, published in 1897.  The inscription reads, “For Grandma from Mary Eunice, December 25th, 1898.”  I’d so love to know who Mary Eunice was, and who else owned the book in the last century.

Those are my most extreme “books as pieces of history.”  Most of my books don’t have such a colorful past.  But most have some story behind them, if only “I bought this/received this as a gift/somehow acquired it at this time for this reason and I wanted it because…”  And I like it enough to carry it around with me ever since, and here’s the history of my life during the time I’ve had it.

I gave thought to the physical appearance of a lot of my books before I bought them.  Do I like the cover, or does the main character not match my image of her?  I just passed up a very cheap copy of a book at a library sale because it was the movie cover edition, rather than the original cover (and it’s not a very good movie).  I’ve bought new copies of some books because all my other books in that series are new, and bought used copies of other books because all my books in that series are used.  I once gave away a new copy of a Burroughs book and bought a used edition because the new copy was disrupting my set of battered 1960s paperbacks.  I’ve created my own covers for paperbacks that have cover images I don’t like, and discarded the dustjackets of hardbacks that look better without them.

I went searching for a beautiful copy of Peter Pan when I already owned a battered paperback, and bought the edition with illustrations by Scott Gustafson.  When I bought copies of Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, they had to meet the same criteria of beauty.

I’m not against e-books to a 100% extent.  I think they’re a nice idea for text books, for travel, and for anyone who doesn’t feel any of the things that I’ve written about today.  And not everyone does.  If you hold on to your history another way, then perhaps you don’t need physical books.

But I, and I think a lot of readers, do need physical books.  Because I can’t imagine any way that e-readers will ever duplicate what I’ve been writing about.  It’s hard to imagine scrolling through an e-book collection on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad and thinking, oh, I remember I bought this back when…and I’ve transferred it from device to device…  Maybe.

But I’m never going to look at inscriptions in e-books and wonder what little girl gave it to her grandmother more than a century ago.  I doubt my granddaughter will be keeping an e-book that belonged to me as an heirloom.  An e-book will never connect me to the past or to the future.  I’ll never line e-books up on a shelf and feel satisfied with how nice they look.  Can I choose an e-book based on its illustrations?  Maybe, but not for the weight of its paper, the shininess of its pages, or the size of it.  I can’t buy an e-book that was published in 1902, or a 1914 copy of Anne of Green Gables (same cover as the first edition).  You can’t ask an author to sign an e-book.

It’s true an e-book will give you the story.  But a book will give you so much more.

8 thoughts on “Books As Objects

  1. I feel much the same way. I love buying used books, particularly very old ones, because I feel such a connection to the people who’ve read them before me. I own many older novels with inscriptions or their previous owner’s name written inside the front cover. I have some gorgeous early twentieth century Shakespeares in which all my favourite passes are already underlined–and because the previous owner (one Harry Kahonovich III) wrote his name in the cover, I know exactly who loved them as much as me.

    Books were so beautiful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, too. I collect Everyman editions, which were intended as cheap classics for poor people. They’re beautifully covered and embossed, with gilt rubbed into the creases. You wouldn’t see that attention to detail on anything other than a collector’s edition, today. In fact, modern Everymans (they still publish!) cost a fair bit in most stores, unless you manage to find them in the bargain section.

    1. How wonderful to have that connection to a previous owner and lover of the book, even though you don’t know them…at least not in a usual way! That’s incredible that a previous owner loved the same parts of Shakespeare’s plays.

      I agree about the beauty of old books too. Some bookchains (I’ll leave them nameless) like to put out “Classic Editions” now, and try to fancy them up with gilt edgings and an embossed spine, but they usually end up looking fake somehow. (And they usually ruin it by putting the bookstore name on the title page!) I think it’s part the quality of the old books, and part a sort of gentling that comes with age that makes the old books seem so much finer.

  2. ensign_beedrill

    I like real books for a lot of different reasons. And I don’t think I could compare the two formats, because I’ve never read an e-book, but I just think I would prefer a real book. I like having a bookshelf full of books, and I aspire to one day have one of those rooms with wall-to-wall bookshelves and sliding ladders. I like the feel of walking into a bookstore or library. I like holding a book and turning the pages. And I spend all day staring at a screen; I don’t want to stare at a screen to read my books, too. Though I made this argument once and someone told me that e-ink is nothing like looking at a screen. I took a look at a Kindle when I saw a display in Staples, and the pages do look very nice and not like a screen. But still…

    Plus, I don’t see it as very cost effective for someone like me who doesn’t read a lot. Is it worth it to buy the reader if I can only manage two books a month? Sometimes an electronic copy costs more than what you can get a used copy for, or if you can get the book at your library. Then there’s the whole DRM thing and will you be able to transfer this book to that device and will there be any device that can still read your book in ten years?

    1. I think I agree with everything you said in this first paragraph! 🙂 I have to admit that I too have never actually read an e-book, so I can’t comment from experience on what it’s like to read one…I can only really comment on the principle of the idea. And I also think that I wouldn’t want to continue staring at a screen. I’m on the computer all day for my job too, and by the end of the day I have to get away from the computer for awhile (before I come back on to blog!) I’ve looked at an e-book on an iPad and that felt like a screen, though I’ve heard that Kindles and the like function differently, so perhaps… Still, no matter what they do with the “pages,” a device is never going to be as nice as bookshelves with sliding ladders. You know the Beast’s library in the Disney movie? In a perfect world, one kind of like that would be nice.

      Interesting point about whether it would be cost-effective! I’ve seen/heard a lot of debate on e-books, and that’s a new point, especially as regards for a less frequent reader. Even if e-books are comparable prices, in a way you have to factor in the initial outlay for the device itself. If you calculate it on a per-book basis for how much it’s adding to your purchase price, it makes those books a lot more expensive if you’re only buying a few (and you’d have to buy a LOT to really get it down to a minor addition to the price). Whether an ebook can be transferred to a new device is another huge issue I didn’t get into here. That’s one of my biggest reservations–last time I counted my books, it was around 450. The paper books I have now, barring fire or flood, should be perfectly usable for the rest of my life (and I anticipate keeping a good majority of them for that long). I don’t want to repurchase them every few years, every time the world of electronic books upgrades. It’s bad enough doing that with movies!

  3. I love the idea you brought up that books actually have a physical history. I have never thought about it quite like that before. Reading a book or e-book by an author long since gone connects us to the author, but reading an old book connects us not only to the author, but to the people who owned and read that book. Such an interesting thought! Thanks for sharing.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post! I also like old books because I somehow feel more connected to the author if I buy a book that was published during their lifetime–even though I know that doesn’t mean they had any real contact with it! Maybe if you buy a first edition of Walden, since I think most of those went back to Thoreau initially, but other than that… 🙂 A lot of my favorite authors have died, so I like that added connection back to the world they were writing in.

  4. Diane

    You have made a persuasive argument for the power of books as objects, to show how people create an emotional attachment to the object because it evokes a past experience or memory. Of course, you are aware of the other extreme – people who buy books purely for decoration and with no intent to read them. See this recent NY Times story: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/garden/06books.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=decorating%20with%20books&st=cse. That attitude seems quite extreme. It’s true that it would be hard to have a “history” with an e-book, but some folks (myself included) have a very small number of treasured books, prefering instead to read most books they choose then pass them on and not keep them at all. The e-readers are a great device for us.

    1. Thanks for weighing in on another side of the issue! Obviously not everyone feels the same attachment to physical books that I do, and I think e-books do make sense for people who want to read a book and simply move on. In a way, that’s what I do with most of my reading too, since I get most of my books from the library. But I don’t have to buy books at the library…and I like to have the option of keeping a physical book if I find one that I’m really attached to. I think there’s a place for e-books–I just hope the publishing world sees that there’s a need for physical books too!

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