By Hazel Anna Rogers
Upstairs in my family home we have two ceiling-high shelves crammed with books. Downstairs, in our dining room, we have two more bookshelves that span the width of the room. I have my own shelf in my bedroom, along with more books stuffed haphazardly into my cupboards.
Sometimes I think the greatest joy of having a book-obsessed household is just staring at the spines that line the walls and coming across titles I had never noticed before. Especially since I started studying literature I feel as though every time I journey home I find books that I’d been hankering after in various bookshops for months. They’re right there under my unassuming nose, hidden between the hundreds of titles, just waiting for me to spy their engraved spines. My mother has vast collections of French and Spanish novels from her time studying in France where she grew up. I think all old books smell damned wonderful, but there is something especially blissful about the smell of an old European title. The mustiness is so very different from the English books we own. It brings me back to my grandmother’s old wooden-framed stone house in southern France. It’s a smell of nostalgia, of intrigue, of childhood. There are so many of these books that I haven’t read, so many that it almost makes me anxious to stare at them all.
But what if, what if instead of all those books that take up meters of wall space were not there at all, and instead all of my family members had sleek, smooth Kindles with an equally, if not greater, number of books inside them, all crowded into its tiny infrastructure, just waiting for the click of a button to open them up?
No, I can’t imagine that either. And, it seems, neither can anyone else.
There is something sacred about books. Their physical nature demands attention, demands us to take a break from the hours we spend every day on our computers and on our phones. Screens are our livelihood now – we use them for work, for play, for communication, for banking, for buying, for selling, but in the light brown pages of a book, one can find solace from all that noise, all that distraction. Books, like social media, have in them the capacity to bring people together, to share stories and joys and hates and knowledge. My mother hosts her book group at home sometimes, and the vibrancy of the discussions they have is so wonderful. I have equally colorful conversations during my seminars at university. This connection, this excitement to discuss and debate is formed all from the sharing of the humble book.
A few years ago, in 2007, the Kindle was launched. It promised a move away from the “environmentally destructive” book, a move away from the little forests we house in our homes and libraries. And initially, people kind of loved the idea. One could bring as many books as one wanted on holiday without worrying about the weight of luggage, or the cost that printing more books has on the planet. With a Kindle, one can stop a book halfway through if not enjoying it and send it back without any extra cost. It seemed the dream idea, an idea that symbolized one step further to ensuring total dependence on technology in society.
I must say I never warmed to this idea. Quite frankly, I despised the concept. My books have always been a sanctuary to me, things to call my own when everything else feels daunting and unapproachable. To read is to allow oneself a haven of peace, to detach from all the struggles and pains of life and escape into a world outside of one’s own. I can’t imagine trying to do that by simply picking up yet another screen.
It seems that others were just as skeptical as I. Once the novelty had passed on this new and exciting device, people quickly scurried back to their dusty books. In 2019, publishers made $22.6 billion selling paperbacks, and $2.04 billion selling e-books. But why should physical books be so popular, after music and film have themselves become almost physically obsolete? Why should this form of entertainment stand so starkly apart from others? Many people have theories as to why, including the beauty of book covers, the ease of reading a cookbook as opposed to an e-cookbook, the importance of a child being able to touch and feel a book as they read…but I think there’s something more to this story. We don’t read music when we’re listening to it, so, in that sense, it has always existed in the “stratosphere.” The same is the case with film (though I must say I still love a good old video or DVD when I go home) – its physicality is not necessarily that palpable, and one doesn’t really form a connection to an unreadable shiny disk. Books are different, and we are forced to engage with them in a very different way to other media. It takes all of our concentration to read a book, to hear the words in our heads and to follow a storyline. And when we put that book down, we fly back to reality from whatever realm of imagination we had found ourselves in. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the ability to pick up an object and depart far away from the world is why the physicality of that world, embodied in the paper book, is so important.
I went to the library a few months back to pick up some books for my dissertation that I’m currently in the midst of. It’s so peaceful in libraries. It’s like the reverence we have for books translates into a sort of silent worship when we’re among them. I remember when I was younger, I would go to the grand old Shrewsbury library, once Darwin’s schoolhouse, and find a little alcove in which to sit and read without being disturbed. When I’d happen upon a particularly insightful or affecting passage, I would pause, holding the page of the book I was reading, and stare out of the window onto the castle grounds on the opposite side of the road from the library. Everything would come into focus, the sky would seem more vivid, the birdsong more poetic, and the castle would suddenly erupt in mystery and grandeur before me. I became hypersensitive to the world around me, because I had been away from it for so long. Then, I would move my nose down once more, and continue to read for hours on end. And when all was good and done, the last page poured over, the book closed and its cover observed for a few precious minutes, I would place it on the trolley by the door and make my way out into reality once again. That’s the power of the book, that way it lures you in, then just as soon lets you go. I don’t think an e-book can ever come close to that. But who knows. Maybe, in the future, we will let go of these relics of the past. Maybe we’ll end up with holograms of books instead of real ones. Maybe we’ll have digital libraries instead of physical ones.
But I don’t think so.
Blog homepage is at https://carlkruse.at
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Last blog post was How Will We Deal With AI Rights?
Other posts by Hazel Anna Rogers include When I Was A Yogi and Those Glorious Trees.
And here is a great take on why physical books will endure.