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Why I Want (Fly)Paper Books

July 20, 2012
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When I recently read this post, it made me think of all the reasons I love books, and all the reasons why I wouldn’t love a e-reader half as much (and what a stupid word is that anyway? It doesn’t read for you!)

I spent my morning train ride and my lunch break scribbling away, getting my disorganized thoughts down on paper. And then, of course, just after I had finished my break and put my notebook and pen away, I realized just what the difference is.

E-books and e-readers are all about practicality. Books are about sensations and memories.

E-readers are about being small and easy to transport, about being able to take a lot of books with you without any extra weight, to own a whole library that takes up no more space than a single book, about needing to kill less trees for paper, about cheaper books and instant availability… about reducing books to their essence: words.

Simple and practical… but to me, it feels impersonal and cold.

Because books are so much more than words. Books are about touch and smell and covers and illustrations, about weight and colours and textures, about stiff, thick paper and paper so thin it is almost transparent, about the crisp white pages of a newly-bought book and the soft, yellowed ones of a often-read one, about the rustle of a turning page and the thump of a hardback falling shut, even about taste (I know it’s disgusting, but when I was little, I used to rip corners off the pages and chew on them while reading). Books are about the sand and the cat hair caught between the pages, about forgotten bookmarks and pressed flowers, about inscriptions and names written inside the cover, about the battle scars of reading, the bent pages and juice spills, the torn spines and sticky tape, the damp-wrinkled paper and dirty fingerprints… yes, I love books, but that doesn’t stop me from treating them roughly. What’s the point of owning them if I can’t do with them whatever I want? Books are about seeing (and feeling, hearing, smelling) the difference between a new book still waiting to be opened for the first time, a defaced had-to-read-this-for-school book, a scribbled-in children’s book and a read-to-pieces favourite…

Old book, new book – just purchased today.

Can you tell I loved Zora? I have a new shiny hardcover now. With the same beloved picture on the dust cover.

I do have a few rational reasons for preferring print books over e-books. I don’t treat my books very… reverently, and I’d rather ruin or lose a single book than an expensive gadget and possibly a whole library of books, be it by dropping it in the bathtub or getting caught in the rain, losing my bag or having it stolen… And what about temperature? Could I leave an e-reader in a car in the summer sunshine, or read outside at the train station when it is below freezing? Could I even use it with mittens on? Could I read at the beach in summer with the sun beating down on it? And what about the sand? Can I drop it, sit on it, fling my bag with it in across the room when I come home in a temper?  Can I cover it in tissues and slam it against the ceiling to squish a spider? Can I put a sheet of paper on it and use it as a clipboard or writing pad if I want to sit outside or on the couch to write a letter? Can I press flowers in it, hide things in it, use it to prop up the couch while I screw in the legs?

I want to keep a book in each place where I might need one, one in my bag, one in my locker, one by my bed, one on the dining table, one next to the toilet and one in the kitchen, one to read in the bathtub and one next to the sink, propped open with my hairbrush across the pages so I can read while brushing my teeth. I want each one to fall open where the bookmark is, without needing to press any buttons.

If you don’t do this, you’re wasting valuable reading time.

And I don’t want to worry about files getting corrupted or the next advance in technology bringing a format change, and no longer being able to access older e-books, and I’ve also heard about Amazon deleting e-books from people’s Kindles… excuse me, what? If I bought something, shouldn’t it belong to me? Keep your digital fingers off my possessions!*

I want to be able to lend and borrow books…

I really need to return this cookbook to my mother…

It would be a sad life if my best friend and I couldn’t constantly trade books. I love lending her books that I enjoyed but that she wouldn’t normally read, and she’s lent me a couple of really great ones, too. And no, I wouldn’t buy them if she already owns them. Do I look that rich?

I want to be able to give books as presents and get books as presents.

Oh, I’m sure you can buy e-books for other people, but you can’t wrap them and physically give them to someone, which, to me, means losing the point of giving gifts, that moment of actually giving, of watching them unwrap their present and watching their reaction, and the moment of receiving a gift, that moment of anticipation and curiosity between feeling it is a book and seeing which one it is.

There exists a rather unflattering picture of me on the day I got this book, holding it up and rolling my eyes, exasperated at my mother’s constant picture-taking and none too pleased with the book, either. That was before I read it, of course!
Ugly cover and all, I love this book dearly. I won’t replace it until it well and truly falls apart.

Celebrating the last Harry Potter book… the Unwrapping was an important ceremony at our release parties, followed by reading aloud.

I want to buy used books and sell or give away the ones I don’t want any more. I want to wander around the flea market on a sunny Saturday morning and poke through boxes of books, to buy a bagful for an euro or two each…

I probably would never have read Karl May if my father hadn’t bought Winnetou II and III at the flea market. And I almost certainly not have read a Karl May book that doesn’t have the green cover of the Karl May Publishing House. And with an e-reader, I would CERTAINLY not have had this “look at the matching colours!” moment when I put it down on the coffee table.

And I want bookstore sales and bargain bins… with e-books, there’s no stock anyone needs to get rid of, so why would they ever sell anything at a reduced price? I’ve repeatedly read the claim that cheap paperbacks will eventually be replaced by e-books, and the true book lovers will buy the nice-looking, expensive hardcovers. Um… I call myself a book lover, yes, but in most cases I’m quite satisfied with a cheap paperback. Because I’m a book lover who’s saving up for other dreams, and doesn’t want to spend all her money on books.

I want books with names written inside the cover, be they names of strangers inside flea market books or names of family members or friends in passalong books.

This is an long-out-print edition of “By the Shores of Silver Lake”, translated by my favourite Austrian author. I’ve seen it listed online for about € 30, but I’m not keeping it because it’s rare.

I’m keeping it because it has an uncle’s name and my own written in it.

I want books with my own childish writing sprawling across the first page, and books with my name written with a quill…

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. I think this book might have belonged to my mother – I remember getting it from my grandparents, and it’s old.

I have no idea where I got the words “Ex libris” from – it looks like I was just learning to write then, and I definitely didn’t know any Latin then!

I want books with handwritten tables of content

I want book with signatures

It was the only reading I’ve ever been to, and it’s the only signed book I have, and it makes me treasure an already treasured book even more.

Yes, it is a cheap, tattered paperback. And the series doesn’t match. But I don’t care. I think I only own one matching series (the Inkheart trilogy), and I don’t mind that one bit. My books aren’t about looking impressive. They are about being here, and colourful, and well-loved.

I want  books with inscriptions…

Dear Ivy!
Your godparents hope they’ve pleased you a little with this book!
Remain such a nice girl, we love you very much!

This was the best gift my godparents have ever given me… Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter is one of my absolute favourite books. If the Nettle Nest were on fire, this is the book I would grab on the way out (OK, and The Dragonbone Chair, but even that would be more easily replaced than Ronia’s hand-coloured illustrations.)

I want books with colourful illustrations

Apart from the fact that it has my name written in it – twice – and that it probably belonged to my mother, I love Andersen’s fairy tales for their illustrations and the faded, fraying cloth binding.

I want books with fold-out maps

I want books with hand-coloured illustrations

Wolfsaga, which taught me so much about respecting Nature, is very nearly read to pieces. But I can’t replace it, because…

… I’ve been colouring in it.

Inkheart was a beautiful book to start with (and the Inkworld trilogy was the only one that I really wanted to have matching hardcovers of), but my copy is even more beautiful:

Interestingly, the last time I visited my father, he showed me a copy of some Leatherstocking Tales book – the exact same edition he had as a kid – that he found at a flea market and told me that in his childhood copy, he had coloured the illustrations. I never knew that!

I want mismatched, battered, colourful books

I want the bent covers from sitting on the book when I was reading in class and I had to quickly hide it when the teacher approached. I want the torn spines from when the Carpenter Brother tried to wrestle the books out of my hands. I want the ice cream stains and inky fingerprints.

I want pressed leaves and flowers

I want forgotten bookmarks…

This bookmark was chewed on while reading the last chapters of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

I want the memories of all the places I read them, of the makeshift sofas, the beds and hammocks, the homes, gardens, cars, classrooms and campsites, I want the memory of a classmate hiding behind my copy of Order of the Phoenix to stop another classmate splashing him with water because both of them knew I would murder them if anything happened to my book (only I am allowed to mistreat my books). I want the memory of the Carpenter Brother and our friend Bone Hard stealing … was that Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows?… during our release party. I want all the memories of these parties, the excitement of buying the book first thing in the morning and the ceremonial Unwrapping and reading aloud… so much more memorable than just downloading an e-book as soon as it becomes available! I think we lose so much even just by ordering books online, we lose the memories of towns and bookshops and the people we were with…

Allow me to quote Cornelia Funke…

If you take a book with you on a journey,…an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper–memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.

Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?” Mo had said… “As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.

Maybe that is why I love Inkheart so much, because Cornelia Funke put my feelings into words, long before I started thinking about them.

Yes, memories cling to the printed page… but I doubt they would cling to an e-reader that well. I’ve never used one, but I used to read a lot of fanfiction, and I can’t remember where I read any of it. Thinking back, I only see a computer screen, but nothing beyond.

Books, on the other hand… I won’t even go into Harry Potter, because I’ve covered some of them in their own posts, and I’ll post about the others eventually. But looking around at my bookshelves, there are plenty of other books with memories caught in their pages.

Memories of all the places we’ve lived, of Sour Cream Street, House on the Hill, the Sandcastle, the Dark Hole… memories of dorm rooms and cars. Of hammocks and beds and tents… of sitting under a tree with my friend Myrtle McGonagall, reading the newly published Inkdeath aloud to each other because Myrtle could not afford a copy of her own yet… of reading in class, on trains and trams… of bookshops in Vienna, in Kassel, in London, in Amsterdam… of getting proof copies from my bookseller acquaintance … of borrowing books from my parents’s shelves … of the creaky floorboards and dark wooden shelves at the old main library in Big Town… of Christmas trees … of birthday parties… of trading books with online acquaintances in  faraway places… of dusty books from the attic at my father’s childhood home… of library visits with my best friend… of primary school book fairs…

It’s not just the things I underlined that wake memories, but the very pens I used.

I want to find my younger selves in those books, the twelve- or thirteen-year-old who read Käthe Recheis’ Wolfsaga to pieces because it was so full of wisdom about the balance of nature and respecting other creatures, who enthusiastically underlined things in her first book on organic gardening, the primary school child who decided to open her own library and scribbled “Nettle Library” on all of her books, the girl who carried her survival kit everywhere because who knew, she might end up alone in the wilderness like the main characters in Die Höhlenkinder [The Cave Children] (and I still always carry a knife and matches, just in case), the eighteen-year-old who thought it would be a good idea to learn Elvish, the teenager who was so shy she could not even go to the library by herself… I would hardly believe I was ever this shy girl, this mousy, awkward teenager, but like a pressed flower, she is preserved between the pages of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, the girl who relied on her mother to get her books from the library or the bookshop, the girl who huddled in a corner of the classroom during break and when asked what she was reading, mumbled, “it’s kind of like Lord of the Rings,” mortified to be reading and enjoying a book that had magic – stupid, unrealistic magic – in it.

Books might be heavy and take up a lot of space, but I’ll gladly give them that space. Without them lining my shelves my home would look cold and bare, just as it does without plants. And I don’t only want to read them, I want to be able to look around at them, to touch them, to run my fingers over their colourful, mismatched, battered spines and remember all the places we’ve been.


*by the way, that expression amused me as soon as I wrote it. Doesn’t “digital” come from the Latin word for “finger”? Yup, “digitus” means “finger” (and I actually went and got out my dictionary for that – much less hassle than first finding one online), but I can’t remember how they got from finger to what “digital” means now.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2012 02:32

    Great post! You’ve shown perfectly why actual books are so much better. =]

  2. July 22, 2012 15:38

    I agree with you. Books of the non-digital kind are the best. There is something so comforting about buying a new book and opening it up for the first time, the scent of the fresh print and the creasing that you gradually add. I think creases are an indication how of how good a book is. You can at least tell it was well read. Much better indication than star rankings that can be punched in by anonymous readers.

    • July 22, 2012 16:05

      That’s definitely true – and you can find the best scenes by looking for the most worn pages.
      I found myself paying more attention than usual to smell and touch since I wrote this post – sitting on the couch reading my newest book and running a finger over the raised letters of the title and, yes, those first few creases down the spine.

  3. September 13, 2012 12:11

    This is an old post and a late reply, but I just have to comment to this in particular. Thank you! I agree with everything you said and I can totally understand the feeling!

    Personally, I try to keep my books pretty and shiny, but the e-reader completely takes away the choice – you can’t even treat the books in it well or badly. And I love to smell pages, touch its texture and look at the font and its size too. I’m not sure, but with an e-reader every story has the same script, right? It’s just boring…

    Anyway, thanks again for that ode to real books!

    • September 13, 2012 18:10

      And thanks for your comment – I loved writing this post.

      I have no idea how different fonts/sizes work on e-readers. I’ve still never used or even touched one.
      And true about them taking away the choice – just one more way in which they make books impersonal!


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