Why Books Matter

I was recently given a gift of a second hand copy of Marlowe’s collected plays. It was a slight copy, dating from 1912 and a little battered around the edges, the pages a little discoloured and yellowed. And what’s more there was an old bookplate inside, plus another couple of inscriptions predating even that.

Bearing in mind that I could have got hold of an electronic copy for even less than this mouldering, ancient copy, wouldn’t that have been the way to go?

Well, no actually.

Now, I realise that there’s a danger of these sort of discussions descending into Ludditism and reactionary fuddy-duddyism, so I’d just like to say straight off that I’m a big fan of technology. I love the iPad and I think that the Kindle is also a pretty fab device too. I’ve read books on both those devices and find it a relatively pleasant experience and I can see the advantage of using ebook readers in term of portablility and storage.

However, I’d say that even with constant improvements in technology, this is never going to be the ideal way to read a book. In the same way that while it is perfectly possible to watch a movie on an iPad, you’re never going to get the best, most immersive, cinematic experience by doing so. Portability and convenience seem to necessarily mean sacrificing something of the essential experience of the medium.

It’s quite likely that as this kind of technology becomes more and more embedded in our lives that it will in fact lead to the creation of new artforms. Maybe we’ll ultimately start seeing creative media that are ‘kinda like’ books but which have strengths and qualities all of their own (much like the way that movies started off being ‘kinda like’ plays before evolving into an artform in its own right).

But at the moment we’re dealing with books being ‘ported’ into electronic media and while I’m largely happy to see that happen, I’m not convinced that we should allow it to entirely supercede and replace the printed word. Why? Well, incongruously enough, let me lob in a quote from Giles the Watcher from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

I think Giles has it right here. The key word is ‘tangible’. I do love the musty smell of an old book, as well as the smell of a pristine, new one. But I think touch is just as important. The texture of the paper, and of the cover. The ability to fold the pages back (I’ve been told often that I inflict terrible violence on the spines of my books). All this is part of the experience of reading. And I’m inclined to think that Giles may also be correct in thinking that knowledge coupled with tangible sensation will stay with us longer, stand more chance of becoming ‘part of us’.

And then there’s that issue with the bookplates and the inscriptions. Isn’t it annoying having those reminders that someone else had this book before you? Well, no, actually. This is, in fact, one of the most wonderful things about books. We can personalise them. We can pass them on either as gifts or as transactions, to make room for more volumes. They, in short, become little pieces of personal history. I have a great many second hand books, some inscribed in some way, some not, but I never fail to wonder at least once about the person who had this book before me. Was it much loved or never even read? Where has it been? What has it seen?

An even greater boon is the discovery of long-forgotten pieces of history stuck between the pages of old books. I’ve previously come into possession of 30-year-out-of-date concert flyers and bold train tickets of the solid cardboard type. It might just be me but I’ve always got a little thrill from these small discoveries.

But then I’ve always been something of a book geek. One of the first things I tend to do on receiving a new — or old — book is to turn to the copyright page in the off-chance that the publisher has listed the typeface used in the book’s production. This, to me, is one of the primary ways in which ebooks spoil our fun, with all our books being preloaded onto our chosen machine in the font of our choice.

Another thing I would be loathe to lose is the joy of a second hand bookshop. Ever since childhood I’ve probably spent an unhealthy amount of time in second hand bookshops. Some have always been a joy to go into, some have been run by misanthropes who would make Bernard Black look like Graham Norton. Some have been chaotic labyrinths of decidedly unsafe towers of books and some have been orderly and tidy to an extent that would book the ‘real’ bookstores to shame. But all were veritable treasure troves where I would pick up volumes that I would never have found in a million years. Sites like Amazon and Abebooks are wonderful things but you largely have to know what you are looking for. The joy of a secondhand bookstores is the joy of making an unexpected discovery, even one a million miles from the subject that you had been initially interested in. There is also the chance of giving a long-out-of print and long-forgotten book an unexpected new lease of life

The likes of Amazon and the modern book publishers hate these kind of attitudes, of course. They don’t want people to pass on their books in this way. They want everyone to buy a pristine new copy. They love recommendations and reviews but they want their slice of the action. This is, of course, fair enough but in the process we’re in danger of losing that continuity, that admittedly slight but I’d argue still significant way for us to connect with each other across the generations.

Giles (as usual) was right. Books should be smelly. Long may it continue.

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