Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Defense of Books – Real Books

                                                                                                                                                              Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                                              May 28, 2009

Those of you who have seen my house in Connecticut, or my apartment in New York, know my love of books. They dominate my apartment and the shelves in Connecticut are over flowing. Despite this apparent disorder, as long as no one touches anything, I can usually find what I am looking for.

My thoughts on this subject surfaced upon receipt of my Kindle 2. It had been recommended by two friends who are great readers and book lovers. One travels a good deal and says it has reduced the problem of what book to take with him. The second told me that his reading had fallen off until the Kindle re-kindled his interest.

The Random House Dictionary, second unabridged edition, defines a book as “a written work of fiction or non-fiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.” According to the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica a book is an “instrument of communication which employs the use of writing or symbols to convey meaning in a publication for tangible circulation.” With a precision that baffles me, but sounding appropriately politically correct, UNESCO defines a book as a “non-periodical printed publication of at least forty-nine pages excluding covers.” Regardless, we all know what a book is when we see one, unless it is embedded on a microchip.

The coming of electronic books raises questions, not only for readers but also for those in the business. Will the advent of the electronic book place book stores – stores already under pressure from recession and Amazon – in further jeopardy? Nobody knows the answer, but the response from my brother Willard who founded, owns and operates the Toadstool (a chain of three bookstores in southern New Hampshire) expresses some concern. While his sales continue reasonably robust, he views this as the first real “threat” in his thirty-seven years in business. According to Willard, electronic books appeal principally to those who read paperback novels, who have little interest in sharing what they read and have no intention to build a library; nevertheless, their proliferation, he suspects, will impact sales. Electronic readers can preview books and they allow the reader to purchase them for about thirty to forty percent of the cost of a hard cover. Longer term Willard worries the Kindle and the Sony Reader will not be good for book sellers, publishers or writers. Copyright problems will pursue writers and publishers alike, as electronic thieves persist. Unlike music, digitized books are generally consumed once, and the question as to who will absorb the reduced prices remains unanswered. Also unknown is the question as to whether electronic books will increase overall sales of an author’s work. Units may well increase, but will revenues?

Steven Johnson and Yukari Kane, in the April 20th issue of The Wall Street Journal, wrote, as regards electronic books; “Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for ninety-nine cents, the same way they buy an individual song on iTunes. The marketplace will start to produce modular books that can be intelligibly split into stand-alone chapters.” That would suggest a fascinating return to the 19th century when authors like Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Wilkie Collins, Edward Everett Hale, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and otherts had their stories serialized in weekly magazines.

While I find the Kindle useful on trips and easy to carry (and even easier to download a novel if one is caught short,) it is not wholly satisfying. I like the feel and look of real books. Real books satisfy three of the five senses – sight, feel and smell. Audio books satisfy a fourth sense.

At Home With Books is a coffee table-sized book written by Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm and Christopher Simon Sykes; the three authors write, “Book-centered homes are described as nurturing, a comfort zone, an escape hatch, a place to retreat to for…thinking…regenerating spirit and ideas.” They also state that “libraries, perhaps more than any other room in the house, express the personality of the owner.”

Thomas Wright, in his recent biography of Oscar Wilde, Built of Books, describes Wilde’s library: “The library served him as a retreat from the rest of the house; it was a symbol of his personal history, as its contents bore witness to the various stages of his life.” The title of Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel, Books Do Furnish a Room, is my idea of ideal interior decorating. Walking into a room shelved with books, especially a personal library is a delight. Book covers, whether leather or cloth, are attractive and incite curiosity. A peculiar smell, a combination of leather bindings mixed with the smell of paper and shelves and collected dust gives off a musty scent familiar to all book lovers. The sight of colorful dust jackets and the stately view of enriched leather bindings encourage one to select a volume, peruse it for familiar passages or search for something new. A collection of books, amassed over many years, recalls for the owner past days and provides for the visitor insight into the owner.

Nassim Taleb begins The Black Swan with a quote from Italian medievalist and mystery writer Umberto Eco about his personal library, a library containing thirty thousand volumes. Mr. Eco is quoted as saying, “A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones…and the growing numbers of unread books look at you menacingly.

My own library is relatively small – perhaps four thousand volumes, of which about half are actually in my library. The rest are scattered through other rooms and my New York apartment. A library is a special place, a shrine to years of gathering and collecting. I sit in my library and look about: three shelves devoted to genealogy; six to works on finance; three to town histories; two shelves of dictionaries; four to the Civil War; fifteen shelves hold the works of P.G. Wodehouse; three of poetry; five of leather-bound classics – Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Bronte, Leigh Hunt, George DuMaurier and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and three shelves of presentation or signed works of fiction. A hidden cupboard houses an eclectic collection of special books – many of little monetary value, but special to me. In the cabinets below the open shelves reside a potpourri of fiction and nonfiction, including two dozen books about the 10th Mountain Division with whom my father served during WW II and another couple of dozen books devoted to the Holocaust, an event I remember my father saying, after returning from Italy, we must never forget. On the floor lie dozens of other books, homeless for the moment, but ones I cannot bear to give up. In other rooms on other shelves lie histories of our country from the Revolutionary War through the present, a few hundred mysteries and a wealth of other fiction, history, biography, letters, autobiographies and essays. I am told that all these books could be housed on three or four kindles, reducing space consumed from substantial to minimal. Would I get the same deep satisfaction and sense of wonder gazing at three electronic readers as I get when my eyes sweep across the myriad titles in their colorful bindings? I don’t think so.

Electronic books do not provide the owner the connection to the past that shelves of books provide. Anne Fadiman, in Ex Libris, expresses the sentiment of; “…what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our olds books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose texture and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

Books have long been feared by dictators and other repressive heads of state, as the ideas they generate are often at odds with their policies. We should keep in mind that Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini strode the world stage a mere seventy years ago – not long in the history of man and culture. We must appreciate what we have; we should never assume the continuity of anything valued. Books are a reminder of the fragility of our existence, the diversity of our cultures and of the hours spent writing in order to educate and entertain.

Real books allow for grazing. We all have many examples of such books, a few of mine include: Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland; The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse, edited by Geoffrey Grigson; A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Busbanes, a book which describes my affliction, and of course The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I cannot imagine using my Kindle for such meanderings.

There is surely a place in our wide and diverse world for electronic books; I would hope they stimulate reading, as paper backs have, and, in doing so, encourage the purchase of their real cousins so that more libraries will be built to contain the books one loves. Books provide busy people the opportunity to “smell the flowers.” They provide an outlet for creative people to earn a living doing what they love. They have given people like me the chance to live out the passion of amassing books – at a rate faster than I can read them, but, like good friends, I know they will be there when I need them.

Andrew Lang, the 19th century author of a series of fairy tales, begins his “Ballade of His Books”:

“Here stand my books, line upon line,
They reach the roof, and row by row
They speak of faded tasks of mine,
And things I did, but do not, know.”

I rest my case.