Sunday, October 2, 2011

Three Cheers for Books

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I recently read Sara Barbour’s op-ed piece, “Kindles vs. Books: the dead trees society.” I’ve never read a Kindle, except over the shoulders of some (very efficient-looking) people on the bus. So I can’t claim to have any expertise with them, or any other e-reader. Like Barbour, I love books and I agree with many of the ideas she puts forward in her article.

Like Barbour, I also delight in the sheer volume of pages represented by the books on my shelves. I have too many books on my shelves and every year I must get rid of a few so that there is room for new ones. But I do love to look at their spines. Every read book is an accomplishment for the reader. And just as hikers will take pride in having climbed a particular mountain, readers will take pride in knowing they have read Henry James, or Virginia Woolf, or David Foster Wallace, or Zadie Smith. Having the physical book reminds readers of their accomplishments.

I also like Barbour's ideas about the book as a gift. The specificity of the book as a gift has the power to dignify both the giver and the receiver.  How many times have I been delighted by the gift of a book from a friend? The gift is the book itself, of course. But another gift related to this is the deepening of the relationship when both giver and receiver have read the same book. It’s something for the two to remember and talk about for years. The gift of a book promises more gifts to come: “I’ll give you another next time.” A gift of a Kindle, on the other hand, implies for me a kind finality: “This is the last gift you’ll ever get."

I admire as well Barbour’s notions about books as objects, there to be looked at, lifted, carried, dog-eared. The reader has a physical relationship with the book. I love the physical presence of a book. The Kindle’s GUI is perhaps nice to look at and the device perhaps easy to carry, but I don’t think it can match the sensory satisfaction of a book.

Umberto Eco recently had something to say about the virtue of the book as object as well. I can’t recall the specifics of the interview, but he stated that books are important because you can’t improve on the technology. He says that a book is like a spoon. Both spoons and books have been with us for ages and they perfectly serve their function. For now we have digital books, and, as Barbour says, they may eventually replace physical books. In the meantime let's enjoy our paper books, while waiting for a world of digital spoons.     

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the importance of books as something to give, receive, and share. That's just not something that can happen with electronic media.

    I like Eco on the perfect utility of the spoon. :)