Remember When People Read Only Physical Books?

These are dark days for the physicality of books.  Sales of physical books are falling further and further beneath the sales of the light and snappy e-books.  Brick and mortar bookstores are closing across the nation.  Wood and straw bookstores have been blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.   Depressing news indeed.

The first book I ever remember reading was Make Way for Ducklings.  It was a big, dark green hardcover with a gold seal on the front.  I used to take it to bed with me, and hold it under the covers.  That was my habit with all my favorite books growing up, and it was not until I was sleeping with Introduction to Statistical Mechanics in 11th grade that my parents felt the need to intervene.

I was always very careful about my books.  I had certain rules.  A college classmate once wanted to borrow my copy of Utopia.  I agreed to let her take temporary possession, but only upon her following my rules.

“Don’t open the book any wider than absolutely necessary, so that the spine does not crack.”

“Okay.”

“And try not to hold the book too much.  Unless you are actually reading it, the book should lie flat on a hard surface, not too close to an open window, in case of rain, and not too close to a radiator.  Heat can ruin the laminated cover.”

“Okay.”

“And if you absolutely must carry the book somewhere, hold it in your hand, but only if you can refrain from bending it.  A lot of people have that tendency, I’ve noticed, during periods of stress or excitement.  If you feel like you are entering one of those periods of stress or excitement, put the book inside of a backpack or satchel, but be very careful.  Place it in the bag so that the spine is down and parallel with the ground, so that the corners do not get smushed by the sides of the bag.”

“Um, okay.”

“The best and safest place for a book,” I continued, “is a boofshelf.  But bookshelves have their own pitfalls.  For example, if there are too many books on one shelf, do not try to squeeze the book in between a small space.  Otherwise the friction from the adjacent books as you try to squeeze it in will cause the book’s front and back covers to fold over, and once that happens…” I shuddered.  “Just be careful, all right?”

She gave me the book back the next day.  “I just couldn’t handle all the rules.  I’m going to the bookstore now.”  I caught her reading Utopia at the dining hall the next day, with the cover folded over.  I shielded my eyes and ran out the door, appetite lost for the evening.

I was not a fan of the Kindle when it first came out.  I remember telling my mother how stupid the device sounded.

“I mean, who wants to read a book on an electronic device?  You don’t even get to turn the pages.”

“Oh, I think it sounds really cool.  How much is it?”

“$349.”

“Well,” my mother said, “I’ll split it with you if you want one.”

And that how I ended up with a Kindle for $349.  And I admit, it was pretty cool for a while.  I downloaded hundreds of free books—Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare—and marvelled at the library I held in my hand.

“Look, Dad,” I said to my father, “this Kindle holds hundreds and hundreds of books!”

“How many of them have you read?”

“That’s not the point.”

But in the end he was right.  I found that reading from the Kindle did not yield the same satisfaction as reading from a physical book.  Percentages and locations were sterile metrics compared to page numbers.  And somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that because the book really wasn’t there, but was just a temporary arrangement of electrons, that I was not really reading the book, and that when I shut the Kindle off for the night, and the words disappeared from the screen, the meaning would disappear from my brain as well.

So I’m back to reading physical books.  Sure, they’re heavier, and more expensive, and take up space that certain household members believe would be better spent on vases and bowls of plastic fruit.  But in this crazy and forgetful world, physical books assure that knowledge, meaning, and beauty are eternal.  Just so long as the spine is uncracked.

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21 Comments

Filed under Books

21 responses to “Remember When People Read Only Physical Books?

  1. Meg Laverick

    I totally understand where you’re coming from. Ebooks are very cool and easy to carry around but nothing beats the feel (and the smell!) of a real book.
    I’m going to have to disagree with you on the condition books need to be kept in, though. I love seeing books beaten and bashed to within an inch of their lives. It means they’ve been loved and reread millions of times over.

    • I love the smell of books too. That’s definitely part of the experience. And I think it’s great that books can take a licking and keep on ticking. Thanks for stopping by!

    • I agree. Books aren’t meant to sit on a shelf, but to be loved and read over and over. I enjoy buying used books because they have so much more character.

  2. The physical book is the best, and your description of Make Way for Ducklings brought a smile to my face. That, along with Edith and Mr. Bear were two of my favorite books when I was a child.

    I totally agree with you on the preservation of the book and its cover, but I have jumped off the deep end, regarding the pages inside. I have started to turn back pages, hi-lite, underline, write in the margins and even double turn back; this makes some of my friends crazy! I figure that it’s my book and maybe someday one of my daughters will pick it up, read it and walk away with a tidbit of knowledge that was important to me – their mom; a continuing connection of some sort. You just can’t do that with the Kindle.

    It saddens me to see bookstores close, as they are so often a place of peace and tranquility; no doubt, two feelings that this society needs more of.

    • It is fascinating to pick up a used book with highlights and notes and see what was important to the prior reader. And you’re right that the Kindle highlight function does not do the same thing. It’s not in your handwriting! The physical ink and handwriting tells a story in and of itself.
      Yeah, bummer about the bookstores closing. A bookstore is pretty much the only retail store I can spend more than five minutes in; and I usually end up spending way more time than I should. I think bookstores will find a way to hang on, though.

  3. dad

    And don’t use a folded-over paper napkin as a bookmark.

  4. The rules are hilarious. My first books were all Garfield. As for Kindle, I have it on my phone and have used it 3 times when stuck somewhere. Told myself I could read Canterbury Tales that way finally. I’m on page 7 maybe.

    • Thanks. Page 7 on the Kindle Edition…I think that’s called The Blogger’s Tale.
      I collected Garfield books, too. Do you remember the one where Garfield is sitting in Jon’s scrambled eggs, and when Jon asks Garfield why he’s doing that, Garfield replies, “They’re warm.”?

  5. “And if you absolutely must carry the book somewhere, hold it in your hand, but only if you can refrain from bending it. A lot of people have that tendency, I’ve noticed, during periods of stress or excitement.”

    Hahaha…love that line.

  6. Love this! I can intellectually appreciate the idea that electronic readers might get people reading more, especially younger people who are so plugged in that they are practically Borg. But I don’t want one. I love my books way too much.

    I used to have fewer rules about my books and even dog-eared the pages of paperbacks. But I got pickier and pickier as I got older and now the idea of dog-earing pages horrifies me. I try to avoid lending books if I can. I always hated getting used books with writing or highlighting in it. Sure, it can be interesting to see what notes someone took before the book was mine, but I hated that the pages were no longer pristine. A little bit of wear is okay because I do love the idea of a well-loved book (The Velveteen Book?), but there’s a limit to what I’ll tolerate.

    Long live real books!

  7. And this is why you are my friend and I am in love with you — in a cyber way. I, too, have rules about books. And while I am very respectful of books lent to me, when they are mine, I bend the corners and — wait for it — I have to write all over the pages. I can’t lend my books to people because they would know every single one of my innermost thoughts. On strange sexual positions: “Wow, that is how I like it!” Or on a book on religion: “Remember that mystical experience at camp? How you felt G-d?”

    You know I tried the nook, and it went back to the store. I still haven’t bit the bullet and bought the Kindle — but I know all the cool kids are doing it.

    It hurts.

    • Compelled to write all over the book, yet do not want anyone to see what you wrote. Fascinating. Yes, you certainly cannot do that with a Kindle. Comments in Arial or even Garamond would, I think, be too sterile for one’s innermost thoughts. Then again, blog posting and comments are not exactly handwritten.

  8. Pingback: Friday Potluck | As a Linguist…

  9. I recently found that my library loans e-books. Finally something I can get on board with. I loathe spending money on a book I’ll only read once and I have therefore shunned purchasing e-books. However, there is a no renewal policy on borrowed e-books, and the lending periods can be as short as 7 days.

    One day I was trying to beat the clock on the expiring ebook license, which I presumed would occur at midnight. But no, there I was at 11:42 in the morning, racing through the electronic pages when I was unceremoniously shut out of the the book with a notice that the license had expired.

    There’s one advantage to IRL books: you can return them late and pay a fine. They don’t simply disappear from your hands, leaving you reading nothing more one of those cartoon puff clouds of smoke.

  10. Jen

    Also, physical books do not require one to keep track of a magical little charger. So that one can focus his attentions on writing his blog 🙂

  11. And physical books have that tasty book-binding glue that dogs love!

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