READER Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper, thumb-licking page turner, peruser, you getting your print-fix for the day, pencil-chewer, note taker, marginalianist with your checks and X’s first-timer or revisiter, browser, speedster, English major, flight-ready girl, melancholy boy, invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger - [...] Billy Collins, from Aimless Love,- new and selected poems, Random House, 2013
Last month the New York Times magazine published an article titled On their death bed physical books have finally become sexy. The author, Mireille Silcoff, talks about how books and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are becoming highly desirable design objects.
Not surprisingly, this piece has had some interesting comments and reactions. People take serious issue at the notion of using books as decoration, of buying them by the yard, without caring about their content, and, presumably, never bothering to read any of them.
Readers tend to have an intimate and emotional attachment to their books. A personal library is filled with read, and re-read books, those that made us laugh and those that made us think, and books we are looking forward to read (together with those we think we should read and never feel quite ready to). It often also contains books given to us, sometimes passed down through generations. It is a reminder of who we are and who we used to be, of our dreams and emotions, of lessons learned and of hopes, of connections and memories.
Picking a book from a person’s bookshelf is an intimate gesture, books tell us a lot about their readers and we know that we are opening a windows on our inner lives when we choose to display them.
Accordingly, the idea of books chosen because their covers are the same color as the carpet is horrifying, but I can’t help finding it also very amusing.
Imagine a woman invited into the home of her romantic interest for the first time. As he fixes drinks, her eyes are drawn to his big monochromatic book collection. No doubt she will immediately learn about his preference for certain shades of gray (pun intended) but also, she will get a very strange idea about the kind of person he is, given the hodge-podge of tomes on his bookshelf. Even if she recognize them as books bought by the yard, she may cut the date short, or just run before he comes back with the drinks!
Of course, that would only be true if she was a reader, if she instead shares the same appreciation for books that he does, she may ask for his help in acquiring books in shades of violet for her home. A match made in heaven!
Not that physical characteristics are not important, they are, otherwise everyone would have already moved to e-books and we would be done with this discussion.
Emotions are deeply connected with our sensorial experiences and in fact, those who resist e-readers say that they like the weight of a physical book, they like to be able to see at a glance how far they are into it, they like the smell and feel of printed paper, with old books they like to be able to see the signs of repeated readings. They like to use personal bookmarks, some like to underline words or full sentences, some write comments on the margins.
There are so many stories of people getting unexpected insights in the lives of lost loved ones by finding sentences underlined, pages marked and notes in their books.
This is one of the reasons why I loved Umberto Eco’s book The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
In it, a book dealer in his sixties Giambattista “Yambo” Bodoni awakens in a Milan hospital after a heart attack, suffering from amnesia. He has no memory of his own life while he remembers perfectly every scrap of every book, comic strip or pop song he has ever experienced.
In an effort to regain his lost memories, he returns to the country home where he spent his childhood and he rummages through old books, magazines, comic books, diaries and records.
His sudden recognition of images and stained or earmarked pages is very moving. Finding damaged copies of old trashy novels he remembers how fascinating some old cliches were to him as a child, he even re-discovers his fascination with fog through an old comic book.
Books don’t give him back all his memories, but they give him long lost emotions. Yambo will not remember the practical details of his life, but he gets to relive his childhood feelings.
I think that this is the crux of the problem that some have with e-readers: there is no emotional attachment when there is no physical object that can be changed (annotated, aged, bent, stained, or bleached by the sun) simply with daily use. Those signs of use make the book ours and us a different, wiser person. Little by little it defines our identity.
I own a Kindle and a Nook, I am awating the arrival of a Kobo reader but I have yet to experience a strong emotional connection with a book I read electronically.
Can e-readers become better at that? I think so, but they need to offer users what they need, not what Amazon thinks they need …and it is a long story.