Some people say books will go the way of dinosaurs. Supposedly, we will enjoy reading “War and Peace” or “Moby-Dick” on a computer screen. But, as a reader, I recently experienced the visceral delight of book ownership that I realize no computer can possibly replace.
It started with the tight cardboard package on my porch, emblazoned with the Amazon logo, heralding the arrival of a new book. A mini Christmas-thrill electrified my stomach: Which book was it? (I had ordered three.) I ran upstairs, shedding my burdens of purse and jacket, procured the kitchen scissors and sliced open the package. The wrappings fell away, I brushed back the advertising fliers, and there it was.
The scent of new paper with a hint of binding glue, mingled with the cardboard packaging, perfumed the air. The cover, to my delight, read: “In the Eye of the Sun” by Ahdaf Soueif, which meant I could begin my fiction reading of the Middle East (my latest literary quest). I balanced the book between both palms, noting the heft, the silken smoothness of its new cover, the soft edges of the pages. The exotic beauty of the woman pictured on the cover promised a rich, textured story. I peeked inside, comforted by the fact that the text was large and airy and serif-faced. (I’ve actually foregone reading books because of sans serif text type.)
Physically, this is an inviting book.
The presentation of a book has much to do with the reading experience. I found the Lydia Davis edition of “Swann’s Way” gratifyingly pleasant, with its rich foil-embossed cover (sturdy yet flexible) and coarse-edged, thick creamy paper which rather emulated Proust’s prose: elegant, dense yet rough about the edges. I started the second volume of Proust, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” but it’s not a friendly book that invites sinking into. Not only is the prose difficult, but also the book itself is unfriendly: Hard, heavy and awkward to hold, with a cover illustration that resembles a discontinued wallpaper pattern. I rather dread having to live with this monstrosity for weeks or months. I have the same reaction to hidebound library books stiff in their crackly plastic covers.
This is part of the reading experience, the physicality of books.
As a child, I enjoyed visiting libraries. I loved the church-like hush, silent sense of purpose and friendly, musty smell of many books on shelves. It’s the same reason I prowl bookstores now, especially the small local ones that mingle new books with used ones, integrating the importance of brand-new crisp books with the relaxed attitude of books already read and enjoyed (perhaps even marked) by a previous owner. My apartment is filled with books, six bookshelves and many piles atop dressers, end tables, bedside tables—even the coffee table. New books, old books, textbooks I saved from college, funky paperbacks with old-fashioned drawings, rare bound volumes fished out of a free box or bought for a dollar apiece at a garage sale. I feel protected and comforted when surrounded by books. They are like good friends, always there and full of secret knowledge of who you are.
Somehow, the cold blue glare of a computer screen doesn’t suffice.