Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Library without Books

During a recent visit to Barnes and Noble's, I saw a woman reading a book. Well, I assume it was a book, but I couldn't tell. It turns out that it is impossible to know what other people are doing with their Kindles. (I don't even know which verb to use with Kindle - did the woman "read" her Kindle, did she "use" her Kindle, or did she just "Kindle"?) My memories flew me back to the good old days in London, when the first Harry Potter book had become an overnight sensation. The dozens and dozens of people I'd see on the tube every day, reading their copy - it was like a secret society. I have always been curious about the books others are reading, but the Potter craze was something I had never seen before. I wonder how many people might have picked up their Potters partly because they saw so many people reading theirs. And then, along comes this woman with her Kindle, with her secret, private reading experience.

It is no surprise to anyone, I am sure, that I have profoundly negative feelings toward Kindle and other electronic reading devices. I arrange my books by colour, I am known to sometimes buy a book just because it is pretty, and just in general, I feel very emotional about my books. I get angry if an old book gets a movie adaptation cover, and I feel bad for a book whose cover is ugly. The first thing I did back in university when encountering a new textbook (they were always ugly: they'd only come in paperback, decorated with geometrical designs and horrid pastel colours) was to smell it, in order to somehow make a connection with it. It didn't always end well: I did badly in certain exams just because I couldn't immerse myself in a book that looked and felt offensive. When writing essays, I'd steer my topics toward older research, get fixated on finding some random, old books, go to the university library and take my time to find anything that was old, hardback and if possible, something that hadn't been taken out since the 1960s. The pages of these types of books always felt more substantial. The proper, coarse paper always felt more valuable compared to that smelly, gliding, shiny paper you see in new textbooks. Poems printed on Bible-type paper, thin, silky and smooth, would always seem more sophisticated and delicate than any online version could. The words might have been the same, but the experience wasn't. For whatever reason, the information I found (and used) in the old books would always land me a good grade and notes in the margin: "Excellent bibliography! Thorough research!" I felt that old books at their best were trustworthy, like an old friend, or at their worst, at least scandalous, which I could use to my advantage somehow.

There is just something very special about a book that was properly printed back in the day. For example, there was that haunting, slightly crooked "k" that was printed unevenly, either above or below the other letters: that "k" would appear from the first page to the last, and to me it would somehow signal the time-consuming process of consideration, that this word, this letter "k", is worth printing. And there is something about a book that was read by others: annoying, badly-chosen underlining, for example. It would never seize to amaze me that some people actually underline an entire paragraph - but I always appreciated that the proof of that action was there, and I'd waste considerable amounts of time trying to figure out why someone would have underlined a particular passage. Ex Libris or other markers of past ownership, bread crubs between the pages, stains, odd smells and the like - to me, these are profoundly interesting and crucial aspects of any reading experience. Of course, most of these can be found only in old books, but with new ones, it is I who gets to leave something behind, for someone else to enjoy or loathe.

And again, I think of the woman and her Kindle. What is rather sad is that after that first moment of curiousity, I haven't given much thought to what she was reading. Instead, I have thought of Kindle and what all of this might mean to the future of books: that one day books will probably be considered profoundly silly and inefficient. I have thought about the last scene of Fahrenheit 451 (ironically, not the book but Truffaut's 1966 movie) where the book-keepers walk around in a bare forest, citing and essentially becoming the books they are trying to keep alive. I have thought about electronics making human memory unnecessary: why memorise anything, why run your finger across printed words when it is so much more convenient to download a text, any text, onto your mobile phone? I have thought about how much I love books, and how depressing it would be to study at the new Applied Engineering and Technology library at the University of Texas - its collection of 425 000 volumes and 18 000 journal articles are only available online.

Top: Max&Co., 2008
Cardigan: Benetton sample sale, 2007
Skirt (actually, it is a dress): Tuuli's old, 2010
Knee socks: H&M
Shoes: Fly London, 2008


Eline said...

I am completely the opposite of you, I cannot understand why the looks of a book would in anyway ever be important for your reading experience. For all I care I could read Anna Karenina on a shampoo bottle, I wouldn't care. Just as long as I have beautiful words, lyrical creativity and an interesting story.

That said, I do very much love books as objects and I also definitely prefer art books as books, rather than ebooks. But I highly doubt that the world of books will ever perish. On the contrary I think the books that will remain will be carefully designed with breathtaking typography and so on. They'd become collector's items and something truly worth buying (contrary to what most books are today). I also believe eventually ebooks will start to become aesthetically pleasing also (especially for nook-like devices rather than ereading devices which work with e-ink).

Obviously I have a Kindle :D. To me it is astounding that I can carry my favourite poetry books with me and the three novels I am reading. Because I travel and walk around a fair amount and always feel the need to read (I get nervous when I forget a book) this is basically the best device I could have ever gotten. Plus, I can finally spend more money on well-designed art books with the money I save from reading free or cheaper ebooks. Long live the digital revolution.

(p.s. I am a gadget nerd)

Eline said...

Oh I also NEED to add that the online catalogues of books are TRULY amazing because people are working hard to make them available for free. Information like that for free is so mind-blowingly awesome I can hardly comprehend it. Plus, there are actually a lot of libraries that painstakingly collect all (or all important to their faculty) printed books. Often they also have truly amazing bibliophile books to drool over. I don't think these special libraries will ever stop doing that. They're available for public. (That's the case in Belgium anyway, but I've heard of other libraries like this all over the world.)

Also when there is and will contiunue to be so actual demand of specially printed and designed books (there are loads of bibliophiles out there) why would printed books ever stop? I truly think the books that will come out will only be more beautiful and hopefully crime novels will cease to exist also. They always have such awful design, right? :D

Charlotte said...

I'm doing an experiment in one of my classes this semester, having the students read short stories on-line rather than purchase a text book. It's definitely not going well--they don't read as carefully, they don't print the stories out & bring them to class, and they don't mark up the photocopies when they do bring them to class, as they might a book. So, I tried it. I won't do it again.

We have thousands of books--so many that our choice of a home was dictated by "good wall space for bookshelves."

You've written so eloquently about your love affair with books, Waves. All I really have to say is, I agree!

poet said...

My relationship to books is similar. Although I read a lot on the internet and have turned to Project Gutenberg to re-read classics when I was abroad without most of my books, I wouldn't think of disposing of the printed word altogether. Much more sensual, in a way, and much more practical (no running out of batteries, no sensitivity to water...) I don't mind paperbacks, and I actually like the smell of new paper, but I also dislike ugly covers... The ugliness that comes with age, with being read, getting slight dog-ears and underlined words, I absolutely love, and I've rescued many an unwanted book that the library was getting rid of. The only downside to books: They are really heavy. When I was moving back to Germany I paid over 100 dollars to be able to take my books with me in an extra suitcase, and didn't even bring most of those I had acquired in the meantime...

Thanks for your thoughts!

Teenysparkles said...

In terms of books, I think I am going to be a traditionalist; and prefer the touch, sound and smell of ink and paper. Reading is a highly sensory experience for me and a kindle cannot manufacture the tactile experience of reading a book.

summertime dreams said...

Your sentiments regarding books echo mine. And you've put them into words so perfectly, that I have nothing to add. Except that, I suppose, I hope we never reach an age where it is too environmently unfriendly to print books. That would truly be a sad sad day.

Anonymous said...

Something in your text made me let out a giggle- I was studying literature for 5 long years and I'm currently during the PhD course also connected with literature, so I come across book lovers quite often and all of them admit with embarrassment that they secretly adore the scent of freshly published books. It must be some kind of fixation.
On the other note, the material, substantial aspect of books is not to be underappreciated. Texts downloaded to your copmputer/Kindle seem evanescent. And they tend to get lost in folders. I have never ever lost a book but I have lost a file countless times. The solid paper of a book guarantees one some sort of solidity and reassurance in real life. It's nice to be able to touch something else than keys of the keyboard.
I've always adored your idea of arranging books by colour, then again I would never do that as I own - on a very cautious estimate - about 10,000 books. Finding anything in that colourful mess would be a touch problematic.
By the way, you look absolutely fabulous in these photos.

tigerteacher said...

I'm torn about the e-reader question. I love books but storage space is an issue and also I can't spend much on them so I stick to library books for the most part. However, I am a train commuter with a decent walk after reaching my destination and often wish I weren't lugging a heavy book, especially as library books are so often hardcovers. If (or should I say when?) the time ever comes where your library membership will allow you to download books to an e-reader without charge, I would probably consider making the jump - at least for my train reading. I wouldn't want to give up entirely the sensual feel and experience of a book but sometimes I envy my fellow commuters with their lightweight e-readers!

Bethanne said...

THANK YOU for expressing your appreciation of physical books in such a wonderfully-written way! I agree wholeheartedly and think that, in switching to a purely electronic reading experience, we lose much more than gaining a little convenience or a lighter purse is worth.

I'm definitely going to direct several friends and family members to this post, since you've articulated an argument that I have often tried to explain much better than I ever could.

Anonymous said...

It's so nice to find a kindred book soul! I am passionate abour books, the look, feel, and experience of them. It all thrills my soul.

I have read a book online occasionally, and alway found something lacking.

Nothing will even make me give up my books for a kindle.

RoseAG said...

I think your commentors really hit all the high points on this topic.

I like to read, but I don't like to carry books around.

Not everything worth reading is worthy of paper. I'm happy to have the New York Times without the paper.

While seeing all your fellow commuters reading the same book as you is fun, it's also nice to keep your reading choices private.

Anonymous said...

You are thinking too much of the book as an object rather than the content inside. The Kindle is a joy to read. I love that I don't have to buy anything physical to enjoy a book and I can buy practically any English book in the world.

vesperbeauty said...

You really do live in upstate NY now - making store names possessive is a classic dialect quirk up here. The store's proper name is Barnes and Noble. :))))

gina said...

Love the blue print on your skirt!

I agree about books. I'd much rather have a printed version with a pretty cover than a little gadget with several books inside that I read on a screen.