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.