Sunday, July 5, 2015

On the Love of Books

I came upon the following sentiment in the New York Times Magazine and it seemed to capture my own feelings about why physical books are so important:

Reading on-screen tempts us to see things only through the pinhole of our immediate curiosity.  I don’t mean to sentimentalize the Reading of Books, but as a practical matter, when you hold a book in your hands, it is very different from what happens when you are [reading something on] a glassy, featureless screen.  Online, your experience is personalized, but it is also atomized, flattened and miniaturized, robbed of its landscape.  Physical books require you to literally hold some of the context of what you are reading, and that is a crucial dimension of understanding.”  (Maria Bustillos)
Most of my well-educated friends have abandoned physical books and have been reading almost exclusively on Nooks or Kindles, or Ipads.  In recent years, I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction:  not only have I rejected digital texts completely, but I now buy only those books that I can get in handsome hardcovered version.  These are usually first or second edition books with clean pages, tight bindings, and unmarred jackets.  I search for the books I want on Amazon and buy used editions that usually cost less than either an e-version or paperback version of the book.

There’s nothing quite like the pleasure involved in holding a beautifully-made book in your hands.  I actually think that it makes the act of reading infinitely more pleasurable than reading the same text in an inferior print or digital version.

I’ve decided that I only want books around me that I know I will want to re-read in my old age—in the twilight years between retirement and death.  To this end, I’ve been ruthlessly selling my paperbacks, worn hardcovered editions, and those books that, while considered classics, I know that I will never read (sorry Herman Melville).

In my dotage, I see myself in a large spacious room, surrounded by wall-to-wall bookcases, each of which is filled with sumptuous editions of the works that I love.  Shakespeare is there of course, along with Kierkegaard, Jane Austen, Seneca, and Henry James….but so is John Kennedy O’Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and of, course, Helene Hanff (84 Charing Cross Road, the ultimate book about lovers of beautiful books).

As I picture my own death, I’m reading an old favorite—Heller’s Catch 22, perhaps, or maybe Nietzsche’s Zarathustra—in a typically handsome edition.  As I near the end of the book, my heart simply stops and I slump forward, my bald head resting falling gently onto the pages of the book I have been reading. 

Could there possibly be a better way to go?