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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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What Makes Real Books Real?

I’m about as weary as weary gets from all the complaining about how ebooks aren’t real books. You can’t feel the smooth-but-rough texture of the paper or admire your vast, beloved collection of ebooks in the built-ins flanking your fireplace. Yeah, I get it. In other words, to some people, ebooks don’t feel like possessions as they read them, and enjoying an ebook feels like falling in love with a phantom.

Hey, I love the smell of books, old and new. I love to hold them, hear the pages flip. There’s a relationship to physical books, especially during the act of reading, that purists wish to preserve. I really do get it. Okay?

What about our long-term relationships with books? Although I own many books that I’ve enjoyed reading, I also own many that I’ve never read, having bought them for cheap somewhere because they were right there within reach and somehow seemed to fill some need I felt I had at that particular moment. Having those books in my possession hasn’t increased their chances that I will read them. Meanwhile, I learn about other books and, based on their descriptions, feel they’re better for me. I track them down, borrowing or buying them as necessary, but most important, I read them.

Most of the books I’ve read have been made of wood pulp, ink, and glue rather than light and electricity, but they haven’t been mine. I get to hold them as I read them, but I’ve lost count of how many books, novels especially, that I’ve fallen completely in love with only to give them back.

Libraries, those institutions of physical bookness, have prevented me from developing long-term relationships with more beloved books than I can remember. An identical copy from Amazon of any one of those books just wouldn’t be the same. My deeply sentimental self wants to keep (ahem: steal) the very copy I read and loved, the exact book I held for all of those hours. I want it to be mine so I can mark it up, jotting questions that came to me and highlighting passages that changed my life. Do you get how much I get that? I really do.

But after a few days, I calm down, get real, and realize I don’t need a copy of the book, nevertheless the stolen original. It has been said by people smarter than I that a well written book holds the reader in a dream. Why should I require such dream-inducers to sit, coffee-stained and dog-eared, on a shelf like a rarely acknowledged collection of souvenirs? Sure, I’m doing that with a bunch of books I care nothing about, but why would I do that to books that have changed me in positive ways?

For me, the reason for reading books is, more often than not, to have the experience of reading them. To get something from words and ideas that resonate regardless of format. Particulars certainly matter; for example, reading a paperback feels different to me than reading a hardcover. But a well written book establishes its own context and doesn’t become muddled by a shift in format. If I decide the particular form and/or content makes a book a necessity, I buy it and do what I want with it, not expecting the copy to replace the original, because the original is gone as soon as I’m finished reading it the first time. I can’t recreate the experience or resurrect whatever unnamable, indescribable thing made me fall in love.

Its creepy clone is welcome on my shelves or on my hard drive, but we don’t pretend the relationship is more than it is. I openly pine for the magical experience I had with the original, and, conveniently, the clone has no feelings and can’t be hurt. And I, the reader, have feelings that no object, no person, can revise.

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5 Responses

  1. Great post Quota Weirdly, old cemeteries inspire me lots!!! I wrote a little post about it: http://wp.me/pUZTD-9m

  2. I feel like this is partially in response to my passing comment of a similar nature on my blog 😉 . I just don’t have much of an interest in e-readers. I will concede that you do bring up some interesting points in terms of the overall reading experience, though.

  3. @mrtaurus — Thanks for the comment.

    @franksheepfoot — Was thinking of those who rail against change and who resist expanding what it means to love books. Didn’t get that from your post.

  4. This is the very reason, I think, that when I’m reading a book that has particularly enchanted me, I slow down as I get nearer the end. No matter how many times, for example, I have read and will read The Great Gatsby again, nothing can quite compare to the experience of reading it the first time.

    I do enjoy the pulp, ink, and glue, though. Likewise, I’m sure I will enjoy having thousands of titles at my fingertips instantly as soon as I do buy an e-reader.

  5. @jeffreyricker — Yes, I savor the last of a book I love, and I feel devastated once it’s over. I haven’t read many ebooks yet. Many of the books I want to read haven’t been available. But I did read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time on my Kindle, and I was as devastated by finishing it as I usually am. But I’ll bet that book would have blown me away had I read it on index cards.

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