Sunday, June 24, 2012

Life of a Book

An article from NPR on Saturday reignited thoughts on the changing fate of printed books, leading me to wonder what will eventually become of my own carefully collected library of books. Some might question what the concern is, since I won’t be around to care one way or the other, but that thought does little to alter my hope that all the books I have lovingly collected over the years won’t end up discarded or destroyed. Likely it is a question that all book lovers ask in these days of e-book popularity, when Amazon sales of e-books are higher than their printed book sales, when the format is now available in a range of devices and when independent booksellers are fighting for the scraps. But this is not the point of the above mentioned NPR story, one that examines how books are passed on from one person to another, how lines of sharing and communication are often part of a book’s life, and how certain qualities—no matter the razzle-dazzle of technology—are untranslatable to the e-book’s metallic shell.

The first books of pages ‘bound’ inside two covers came to us from the Romans, and though each of the pages was handwritten, the package was at least in a shape close to what we know today. People had been writing and disseminating their words and thoughts for long years but the Roman codex gradually became the dominant form in the ancient world. The next great leap came with water-powered paper mills around 1282, replacing the labor intense handmade paper of China and Muslim cultures and increasing the production of paper. Paper-making centers multiplied in Italy especially and by the late thirteenth century paper was being made and sold at a fraction of earlier prices. Bookmaking entered the mechanical age in 1440 with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, a shift that continued to lower the cost of printing as well as the price of books. By the mid-nineteenth century growing industrialization made it possible to print books faster, in greater quantities and with less labor. Mechanical typesetting made the process more efficient and efficient distribution of printed material by railroad put books into more hands. 

The span of years between then and now is about 150, a number long enough to imply an age or era and hint that we are on the verge of another radical shift in book production, book buying and the way we read. No doubt an exciting era of book publishing for many, one that has opened a door of opportunity to writers, publishers and retailers alike. The phenomenon will reap rewards (of whatever nature) for many people worldwide and will be added to the list of advances made possible by technology.

Even the most confirmed Luddite will have to admit to the benefits of reading brought by the advent of e-book technology. Denying the advantages of reading a book on Kindle, Nook or iPad might be described as flirting with masochism—like saying that cell phones are uniformly bad. Some of us could list half a dozen things that e-readers fail to do, but in the end it adds up to nit-picking. But wait, hold on, because there are an equal number of us who can wax poetic about the advantages of reading from a real book that requires actual page turning, doesn’t include a built-in dictionary, and can’t be downloaded at home in sixty seconds. There are after all, two sides to every question.

Real books are my passion, hardback first edition books, first printings, and if signed by the author, then it becomes a blessing increased. Books have an almost tactile heartbeat and warmth that invite the reader to value them as something more than the paper and price tag imply. Holding a book in my hands, savoring the feel of it in my lap, the sound of pages turning, the smell of ink and binding—all the sidelines that are the small relish of reading a book. Maybe I was fortunate years ago in a part-time job at the public library where I worked with people who respected books and who taught me much about the life of books. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred I will choose a hardback book over either a paperback or e-book. Children’s author Cornelia Funke said it eloquently… 
“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times? 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.”

Happy with my ten-pound hardback copies of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Stephen King’s 11/22/63, when I began reading each of the books, I sorely wished for e-book copies to save my overworked hands the pain of reading from leaden volumes. At other times I find the clarity of pages on my iPad unbeatable, and the sharpness of a Kindle in the noon glare of the beach amazing. And then there is always the price difference in an e-book and a hardback first edition. Good Louisiana friend R says it all in a word— “Convenience.” 

Hard to count the times I go back to a book to flip through the pages, look up a particular passage, or maybe just reacquaint myself casually with the feel or flavor of a certain book. Then, there is the increasing value of a book, especially one by an enduring author, even more if it’s a signed copy. Should the day come when you either want or need to sell a book, the rewards are going to be much higher for a printed book. The e-book in its nebulous digital lifetime offers no such return.

The NPR article describes a book given by an uncle to a nephew in 1898. The nephew died in 1945 and in the mid 1950s his wife passed the book on to her husband’s biographer. When the biographer died in 1966 the book passed on to his widow, who lived until March of this year. As her grandchildren sorted through her books, they came upon that old edition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It now rests on a shelf in the home of one of those grandchildren, author of the NPR article. I love stories like this but they make me wonder about the favorites among my own collection and where they might one day wind up. Hope is it will end up on a bookshelf somewhere where others can enjoy what it has to say.


  1. It drives me insane to see pictures of bookshelves and not be able to read the titles. Many look familiar. Connolly, Pat Conroy. I have Beach Music on my shelf; someone told me I should read it, and Prince of Tides and The River is Wide were so good...
    If my younger self were to be pressed in a book, it would definitely be Jane Eyre, the one that spirited me away from small-town New England and into the mysterious world.

  2. Nail on the head. Great post--of course I love reading books (or articles) about books as well as books themselves. I am a real book addict and thank the Higher Power when I discovered that drug and pray not to be cured of that malady. E-books are convenient, yes, and I even have some electronic copies of real books that I own, but replace totally the dusty tons of books I can hold in my hand? No way, ever.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America