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Touching Books

February 6, 2013

My first memory of a book isn’t words, or even pictures. My first memory of a book is the feeling of dipping that book into water, into the little pink plastic tub I was sitting in, out in the garden on a sunny day – dipping it into water, then pulling the soft, soggy paper into little pieces.

This moment, one of my earliest memories, came to mind again as I thought about the issue of books versus e-books.

Because what stands out in this memory are the tactile sensations. The dry, stiff paper turning soft and wet, bending around my fingers, peeling the clinging pages apart, and the slight resistance as I pull it into pieces, so different from tearing dry paper…

Last I checked, this book was still in OK condition, despite being read repeatedly by three kids over the last twenty years. Show me an e-reader that lasts that long, and maybe I’ll buy one.

And even if I haven’t destroyed another book since then, those tactile sensations are still a large part of the reading experience for me. Feeling the weight of a book, the thickness of the paper,  running my fingers over the covers and spine, over the edges of the pages, toying with bookmarks or ribbons…

I’m reasonably sure I could recognize a good few of my books by touch alone. I suppose I can file that under “useless skills”, but nonetheless… I can’t imagine reading a book without touching it.

Needing to touch things is one of the forces that has driven me all my life. My love for words – for reading them, but also for writing them, hearing them, learning them – is another one, but the need to touch has even dictated my choice of profession, picking a “lowly”, dirty-fingered physical job over a perhaps better paid and more prestigious “office” job –  and it most definitely dictates how I read: on paper.

At the end of that summer, that book was a mass of loose pages with sand between… and yet, I kept it and read it for another ten years. Show me an e-reader that still works when it’s literally falling to pieces, and maybe I’ll buy one.

Because I want my books to be so much more than just words. I want them to be a weight in my hands, paper under my finger tips, a smell in my nose, a colourful cover, a bookmark chewed on in fear, a frayed ribbon wound around my fingers a thousand times, a handwritten inscription, an inky fingerprint, a loose page fluttering out every time I open it, an illustration coloured by a child’s clumsy hand, a stranger’s name in a second-hand book, an autumn leaf forgotten between the pages since childhood…

I want to read with all my senses, read a book that is flypaper for memories – yes, I have written about this issue before, and a lot of people are writing about it this week, and many of them probably better than me, but I don’t think I will ever grow tired of singing the praises of books, of real books, of books made of paper, whether pristine or yellow and dog-eared (as mine tend to be).

To sing the praises of touching them, owning them, sharing them, of giving and receiving them…

Show me kids getting so excited about downloading an e-book… show me a way to get my hands on a long-awaited e-book a day early, and maybe I will consider buying one.

I don’t like things that I can’t fix. If a book falls apart, out with the sticky tape, and it’ll last another couple of years. A bookshelf collapsing under the weight of my hoarded treasures? Get me my tools, I’ll put it back together. An e-reader? I doubt I can fix that – I don’t know if anyone can.

This culture of disposability really bothers me. I hate having to throw things out when they’re broken. I want things that last. And technology especially seems to last less and less long. Which is one of the reasons why I don’t own a lot of it, and some of what I own won’t get replaced when it breaks (I need my laptop and a camera. I don’t need a cellphone, really. Or a radio.)

If I can’t touch something, I can’t think of it as something I own, either. I don’t want to spend money on such things.

Show me an e-reader that I can see in a picture nearly twenty years later, and instantly recognize which book I was reading, and maybe I’ll buy one.

Books, real books, however, I’m always ready to spend money on. Books, I’m always ready to find some more space for. Maybe I’m a hoarder, but I prefer to think of it as living in a library. And not just my own library, either. I’m always happy to lend out books (with a few exceptions. My signed copy of The Dragonbone Chair and the hand-coloured Ronia the Robber’s Daughter? No. Way.), and I’d love to have more people to lend them to.

I’ll borrow books, too, from everyone and everywhere (I still have two books I should return to my friend in London), except from the library, because even in the main library in Big Town, the fantasy department is pathetic.

I’ll pick something out of a bookcase when I’m visiting family, and breeze it before going home. With other people, I would never take something without asking, but I let my eyes roam over their shelves, looking for authors and titles I know… things I couldn’t do if their books were all hidden away on an e-reader.

Show me e-books that I can share as easily as real books, and maybe I’ll buy some.

Yes, maybe I am a hoarder, but I like my groaning shelves – whatever would I do with my walls otherwise? They would be so big and bare… I don’t even own a TV to cover a bit of wall.

Have you ever noticed, by the way, how in most people’s living rooms the couches and chairs are all facing the TV? I find that quite sad. Mine is the only living room I know where they’re arranged so that people can look at each other and talk to each other. With a table in the middle, and what do you think is on that table when I don’t have visitors? You guessed it:

Show me e-books that give me the same sense of satisfaction as seeing real books stacked up, knowing I’ve read them, and maybe I’ll buy one.

I’ve recently decided that my goal for this year is to read my height in books. How would that work with e-readers, huh? And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know how fond I am of pictures of stacks of books:

books It's not writing the reviews that takes so long, it's pulling all those books off the shelves for my traditional book-pile picture, and finding appropriately-sized placeholders for books I don't own, and putting them away again...    TBR pile

Show me e-readers that make reading look so satisfying, so colourful and pretty, and maybe I’ll buy one.
But probably not.
(By the way: It’s actually not quite true that my first memory of a book isn’t words or pictures. I remember enough of the pictures to figure out which book it was.)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2013 13:00

    You write very expressively. It’s over fifty years and I still remember the taste of wet cardboard 😀

    • February 6, 2013 13:04

      Hehe – don’t remind me of the books I nibbled on. Poor things!

  2. February 6, 2013 16:25

    When I was young I had the english version of that book you are reading in the first picture! Oh the memories! My brother and I pored over it’s pictures for ages, I have to go search for it now… 🙂

    • February 10, 2013 03:41

      Awesome! My copy is probably in my mother’s cellar, waiting for another generation of children.
      (Your comment had been caught by the spam filter, for whatever reason… sorry about that, but luckily I noticed it!)

  3. February 8, 2013 08:46

    i felt very much “at home” in this article, which rang lots of bells with my own vision of the book. it’s funny you mention the omnipresent TV screen; I call it “the black eye”, and managed to keep it hidden inside in cabinet for years until the family was seduced by a flat screen that has been glaring at me from the wall ever since. I just ignore it and pull out my super shield: a paperback 🙂

    • February 8, 2013 13:54

      Books make good shields against all sorts of things – TVs, annoying family, drunk strangers in search of a kiss…

  4. March 2, 2013 13:19

    I second that. All of it! Your photos are cute too. I’d like to add smell to tactile sense though. It might even be more important to me. (Also, useless talent? Just apply to “Wetten, dass…”. 😛 )

    And sometimes the table is covered in books even when there are visitors.

    I’ve to object on the durability of technology though. My laptop is about six years old and still working fine! But it’s not enough of a reason to replace real books, I agree with that.

    • March 2, 2013 14:04

      So? Several of my books are older than me, and a few even older than my parents. I don’t think technology will easily beat that. 😉
      Wetten, dass…? Pff. I don’t even watch tv, why would I want to be on it?
      And the table… well, yes, I suppose that can happen…


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