Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why I Am a (Physical) Book Person

I could subtitle this “Why I hope I’m never forced to read books on a screen.”

I know about the advantages of e-books. They’re cheaper. They’re light and easy to carry around. But in my mind the advantages don’t even come close.

A book is so much more than just a story, just words. A book is the way it feels, smells. It’s a weight you hold in your hands, it’s the pleasant slight resistance of the binding and the small cracking sound when you first open the cover, it’s the texture and shading of the pages (yes, white does have shadings). It’s the black type against the white. It’s the feeling of the paper against your fingers when you turn the page. It’s getting to the end of a page and having those few seconds of anticipation of what comes next before you turn it, a pleasure eliminated by continually scrolling the text down. (So often a page seems to end in just the right place, withholding its revelation for that tantalizing moment.)

There’s something about sitting with a book open, like spread wings, that invites you into it and holds you within its world. The physical nature of a book is friendly; you can touch it, smell it. A screen imposes a layer between you and the book and keeps it just slightly removed from you, hampers the connection you make with it.

After you’ve read an e-book, what’s left? It disappears back into the ether, leaving no physical trace to stir the memory. There’s no replacement for the presence of books you’ve read in your own library. The variations in covers and spines make patterns on bookshelves that are both soothing and stimulating to look at. Being able to see all the books I’ve read is a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. And just looking at a book—taking it down and holding it in my hands—brings it back to me, if not in perfect memory for its content, then in the feeling that I remember getting from it when I read it. It can bring back a vivid character whom I’m happy to have met, an intricately woven plot or resonant theme. I can reread beautifully written passages.

But the memories stirred aren’t only memories of the book itself but of the time in my life when I read it. I may remember when and where I bought or received it. I remember that I was reading this at a PawSox game between innings, or while snuggling up cozily during the blizzard we had three years ago, or on the train to New York or the plane to San Francisco. I remember that I was reading ‘Les Miserables’ while I suffered through mono. I remember the semi-trashy novel I read on my honeymoon (trashy is okay on a honeymoon). Those books are part of my life. A book contains lives within its binding—not only those of its subjects or characters but also of its readers.

My husband often “cross-reads,” that is, he goes back to reread parts of other books that bear on the book he’s currently reading, and he has them handy on our bookshelves. It may be possible to do that with an e-reader, if the e-books have been kept, and it would be quick, but I can’t imagine it being more satisfying than browsing through the pages of a book you haven’t read in a while and catching serendipitous passages that you weren’t even looking for.

I don't mean to offend anyone who enjoys e-books. It’s just my personal statement setting forth the reasons for my “great quest” to buy as many books as I can while they still exist. My quest takes me to bookstores, new and used; library book sales; yard sales; anywhere, and drives me not to leave till I’ve filled a few bags or boxes. I want to hoard books, save as many as I can against the day when (horrors) they will disappear from the marketplace. I picture myself in my retirement years greedily surrounding myself with stacks of unread books as well as old favorites to reread, happily ignoring the virtuality of the world around me while I smell the paper and binding and run my hands over the pages.


  1. Beautifully put Elaine. I received a Kindle from Steven 2 years ago. It's a different reading experience for sure and I agree, it's not the same as when I hold an actual book in my hands. My bookshelves are lined with my favorites (for all the reasons you list)and will continue to be so ~ including buying the actual "book" version after I read it on the kindle. :) Thanks for your perspective and insight!

  2. Thanks, Amy! I'm so glad to hear you buy the books even after reading them electronically. In a few cases I've read a paperback that I liked so much that I wished I had it in hardcover, but by that time the hardcovers aren't available any more. Great way to continue to support authors and publishers (and bookstores!) too.

  3. Oh boy, Elaine. I just realized, as I was reading this, that there really is a connection with books. I was putting my current reads away (had a pile of nine or ten) in their places on the bookshelves and looked at the books on either side and remembered...the book, the place, the time and so on. So you're right...physical paper books are definitely special.

    One thing we have a lot of are books well over a hundred years old and many that date from the 1930's and 40's. They were published differently than those printed today. The paper is heavier, the font is, I don't know, more firm(?), most often the print is darker. I love old books.

    It's unlikely in our lifetime books will ever disappear although some of the booksellers sure seem to be trying. A friend of mine recently published an e-book and it will be ONLY an e-book. I wonder how she is going to autograph it?

    Thanks for this. I promise, even if I get the Kindle, I won't abandon "REAL" books. They have too much to offer!