Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sacredness of Books, The Sanctity of Print

Is there something sacred about the book, as a format?

We feel there is something special about the leather-bound tome on the shelf, and afford it a special significance that we don't assign to, say, the CD or DVD.  Even the spine-creased paperback has been held and fondled and caressed, directly and for a period of hours.  Books demand unmediated, tactile consumption that is foreign to other media.

But does this make it particularly special, this format?  Or is it simply that it has been around for so long, and used to transmit so many messages that have become central to our culture (The Bible, the works of Tolstoy and Dickens, Harry Potter), that it becomes difficult to imagine life without it, and so we have, in the face of new alternatives, afforded it a protection and reverence we used to show to women, children, and the elderly?  Is there a benefit to the physicality of the book that demands we preserve it, even though we've discarded the papyrus scroll, the long-playing record, and the cassette tape?

Burning books has been seen as a horrible, reprehensible act for a long time, now.  It's associated with the most ignorant of faith-based thinkers and the most dangerous of regimes.  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 showed us the horror of this wholesale, biblicidal destruction of knowledge.

But a decade into the new millennium, there are signs we are ready to move on.  E-readers are becoming affordable and commonplace, digital book sales are gobbling up a measurable portion of the book sales pie-chart, and former book hoarders and collectors are enthusing about the amount of space they can free up in their homes by moving their libraries onto their new digital gadgets.  Listening to the owner of a Kindle the other day, I heard, "I'm going to get a game room in my house with all the space I'm saving.  First thing I'm gonna do is buy a pool table."

I was confused.  Was this person going to re-purchase all the titles he owned in physical format as electronic books, and then throw the physical books away?  Or does the fact that electronic editions are available for instant download make him want to dispose of his physical library, secure in the knowledge that, if he wants to read a book again, he can download that title over a free cellular connection in seconds?  For whatever reason, the adoption of a new way of reading for this man meant that the old form of his entertainment had to go, wholesale and in bulk.

What happens, though, to the pleasure of running your eyes across a shelf of books you've already read, each one freighted with the mutual significance of content and context, what it said and where you read it, what it meant to you, who you were before and after you turned the pages?

And how much room do books take up, really?  A foot in from the wall, here and there?  (I wanted to ask: How can you spread a pool-table along your walls?)

Granted, the weight of books can be tremendous.  I think that's the greater stigma they carry today.  We Americans are supposed to be light and fast and mobile, ready to jump up and follow an opportunity at a moment's notice.  "Must be willing to re-locate."  Our houses down pass down the generations.  They aren't places to put down roots and build histories and collect pockets of significance.  They're assets.  The last thing we should burden them with are libraries.

I've got an e-reader myself, and I'm noticing there is something sad about a physical bookshelf that hasn't been updated in a while.  The spines fade, a layer of dust grows in hard-to reach crevices, the prices printed on the spines start to look quaint and old-timey.  And I think that's what today's book-lover, caught in the shiny embrace of digital content, is afraid of coming home to: this accusation from his shelves that he hasn't been reading--when in fact he has, he just hasn't been shelving the artifacts.

But without the artifacts--with just tiny, tiny digital book files (a novel is about a tenth the size of a song) -- can the words carry as much weight, imbue as much significance, as ink on paper?

I know it's silly to bemoan a state of plenty.  The amount of information I can access from this desk with a few keystrokes is nothing short of miraculous.  BUT.  Consider the act of burning a book.  The energy and determination and world-view that requires.  And then consider the act of deleting a digital file from a hard drive.  It's easy, it's instantaneous, and the destruction is no less complete.  Even better: there are no ashes, no fumes, and no heat.

When a book is so easy to erase, is it not as easy to forget?


  1. I find I remeber things better when I read them on paper - I used to have to print all my university readings to amke sure I took it all in.

    And to quote one of my favourite t.v. shows -
    Ms Calendar: Honestly, what is it about computers that bothers you so much?
    Giles: The smell.
    Ms Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert.
    Giles: I know. 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.

  2. Agreed, Weenie_elsie, and bravo for using one of my favorite quotes from my favorite TV show (too).

    My biggest fear of ebooks is the inevitable failure of technology - servers crashing, etc - and information lost at the drop of a hat. Also, censorship...who can guarantee that sometime down the road, the "powers that be" won't decide what we can and cannot read and just hit the ol' delete button and *poof*. At least with printed books there's the ability to hide a copy for posterity.

    I'm afraid it will be a long time before I'm won over on ebooks. With all of the studies they've conducted on how bad too much TV and computer screen time is for childrens' developing brains, now they want all books to be put....on a screen. That will help our flagging education system, yep.