The Feel of a Book

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I really do wish I could switch to an all-digital book library, buy every print book in this house in some e-book format, and haul all of this shit to the goodwill, or sell it in the Amazon used section.  Someday, books will kill me, and I’m not talking about being buried alive via hoarding.  I mean, these books are all collecting dust mites, and I’m horribly allergic to dust mites, and I’m sure ten out of ten allergists would tell me, “well, just get rid of all of your books and watch more TV.”  And of course, 87% of the books I have here aren’t available on the Kindle, and even if they were, the second I’d buy all of them, they’d change the Kindle format to some incompatible thing and force me to re-buy everything, just like the whole vinyl > 8-Track > Cassette > CD > MiniDisc > DVD > BluRay > whatever trail of tears.

I tried remembering when my whole relationship with books started, and of course, I can’t.  My parents started buying me books before I can remember, those “I Can Read” books like Danny and the Dinosaur that you got from the grocery store or some mail-order club.  I remember being in the Weekly Reader book club, getting these corrugated cardboard mailers every week or two, containing another few hardcover books, each one getting progressively more advanced.  I thankfully learned to read before I started school.  I lived in a tiny village in Michigan with no kids as neighbors, in an age before cable, when an endless amount of adjustment to a set of rabbit ears got you four or maybe five channels of TV, so those books were my lifeline.

In thinking about this, I think one of the reasons I like to collect books is their physicality.  I’ve still got a couple of these Weekly Reader books, from almost forty years ago, and I loved the oil paintings in color on the cloth-bound hardcovers, a square spine and a design that is obviously very pre-Photoshop. Some books had spine lettering faintly embossed in a metallic gold color, and looked distinguished and official.  Some were paperbacks, the Choose Your Own Adventures and Encyclopedia Browns and pocket editions that felt the perfect size in your hand.  I devoured all of these books, and no matter how many of them showed up in our rural route mailbox, I always wanted more.

I always got locked into these series books, things like junior encyclopedia, where they’d sell the first volume at Kroger and then swindle you into mailing away for the next twenty.  I remember this junior history series I had, an endless collection of books on American events like the construction of the White House or the battle of Iwo Jima.  My parents would sometimes go to a friend’s house to play euchre, plop us in front of a TV in their living room, and hope we’d fall asleep eventually.  I would always drag along a huge collection of these books, so that instead of watching a Love Boat re-run, I could read the illustrated history of the Washington Monument or the D-Day invasion.  And I would always have to bring an entire armload of them, partly because I felt a need to always have access to every volume (this predates Wikipedia by a few decades) but also because I enjoyed the physical feeling of having all of these books, the weight and feel of these perfectly square books filled with illustrations and maps and pages that smelled like fresh paper and ink.

I always wonder about this with kids that are being born right now and handed an iPad thirty seconds after they leave the womb.  There’s something magical about being able to zap an animated book filled with background music and hyperlinks to your kid, but are they missing something by not having an actual, physical book in their hands?  A device that plays Angry Birds and shows videos is pretty cool, but do you miss out on something that you get by hoarding these little bits of dead tree?

I do like loading up my Kindle with books before I get on a plane.  And most of the books I sell are on the Kindle.  But it doesn’t feel like I’ve “bought” a book unless I have it sitting on a shelf, and I like the physical rituals of either going to stores or having a delivery person hand me a cardboard mailer filled with books.  I also don’t like that I always hold the same device when I’m reading different books, the same size and weight and thickness, and I’m even deduced to the same exact font and margins. I’m not pro- or anti- on the e-book, but it makes me hesitate before I buy anything, and I end up purchasing the best stuff twice.  I can’t seem to fully jump on either bandwagon, which means I probably will either be buying a spacesuit to keep out the dust mites, or googling away to find clinical trials of some new steroid treatment to keep my eyes from swelling shut.

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7 thoughts on “The Feel of a Book

    • Yeah, heard about that. I really do miss the appeal of those Encyclopedia Books. I remember catching an error on a TV show for the first time due to something I read in an EB book ("hey, they're loading that dude into an ambulance feet-first!") and realizing that TV was not infallible.

  1. I totally agree about the books (Kindle is easier but inferior), but why do you feel so differently about having "hard copies" of music and movies?

    • The difference is that when you consume a book, you have to hold it in your hands the entire time, and the relationship is much more intimate. A book is a form of hypnosis, and the physical book itself is part of the trigger mechanism. I know you sit around reading the entire liner notes for a CD while you listen to it, but I can't think of the last time I actually sat and only listened to a CD while reading the booklet; music is usually on when I'm doing something else. The closest I get to listening to a CD and doing nothing else is maybe when I'm working out or walking somewhere with headphones on, and in both cases, I'm not looking at the booklet.