Thursday, 22 August 2013

Books to Have and to Hold

Philip Harvey

The New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg posted an opinion piece, or should we say mood piece, on the tenth of August. He pondered the dual reading existence so many of us now travel, between e-book and book-book. Verlyn observes that when he shelves in the cloud the e-book he has just finished on his iPad “it vanishes from my ‘device’ and from my consciousness too.” He admits to finding this very odd. 

Thus he defines one of the critical frontiers of modern culture, one of the great imponderables that vexes librarians everywhere: how do people now read? What is happening to reading? This is not just a matter of print versus digital, but of the plethora of vehicles by which the words we read are now delivered. Do we spend more time at a computer doing light reading? Is the e-book the best way to carry our transitory reading or our work manuals? Would we still rather prefer the solid object the book as we spend the weekend deep in some Russian masterpiece? Isn’t it easier and more rewarding to read Tolstoy on the page than the screen?

The e-book has made us more conscious of what Verlyn calls bookness. “When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book — its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed. Amazon reminds me that I’ve already bought the e-book I’m about to order. In bookstores, I find myself discovering, as if for the first time, books I’ve already read on my iPad.” 

Bookness itself is a little explored subject yet a pleasurable experience for all of us. I remember reading C.S. Lewis once where he confessed that he liked books not just for the contents but for their shape and smell and feel. This seemed an embarrassing admission to me at the time, until I had to admit to myself I felt similarly about books. One thing about an e-book is its ability to hold masses of text, but another is it’s the same old contraption every time. Each printed book has meanings associated with its content that are physical: look, design, smell, touch. These are unacknowledged meanings we take with us as part of the reading experience.

Our columnist is clearly concerned about how books ‘vanish’. When he looks at his own physical library something new happens: “They used to be simply there, arranged on the shelves, a gathering of books I’d already read. But now, when I look up from my e-reading, I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark.”

He apologises for what may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. I would go further than that. Books on my shelf are permanently available, they are there to be referred to at any time, they answer the prompts of the mind readily in a way that is not possible from something that has ‘vanished’. Books in our own library are our kingdom; it is fairly much up to us whether our manner of living with that kingdom be quixotic or platonic, borgesian or erasmian.

Verlyn Klinkenborg seems to have a mountaineering approach to books. When a book is finished “it is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial.” He climbs Everest because it’s there. For him, books on a shelf are proof of having read all those books. (This claim can be questioned when we visit the homes of those who furnish their rooms with impressive books, but Verlyn obviously is not of that breed.) He brags about having read 800 book on his iPad too, as though they were so many foothills of the Himalayas. Yet he concludes with the sober and impressive discovery: “But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself.”

The weak link in his mood piece is the stated belief that “reading is inherently ephemeral.” If reading were simply a proof of how much you read, then maybe this is the case. But Verlyn is like many of us, enjoying a return to past books, picking out titles that meet a particular state either to be entertained or informed. It was the same C.S. Lewis who wrote that the really great books are the ones you want to re-read, and go on re-reading throughout your life. What’s the use of having them ‘vanish’? They should be on the shelf at all times. Because while a lot of reading is ephemeral, much reading is not ephemeral. All of our favourite reading, the words we want at the drop of a hat, should be close to hand in physical book form. At such times, and they are often, in my case every day, bookness is all.

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