Earlier this summer I installed wall-to-wall bookshelves in my home office. I planned out the linear length of shelving I would need to give me adequate space for the books I currently own and room for future expansion. I figured out the average weight of a foot’s worth of books to calculate wood deflection, weight distribution, and spacing for the shelf supports. Then I spent more than a few hot weekend afternoons sanding, staining, and sealing the shelves. Now that they’re installed I’m very happy with the results. I now have a place for all my books; they are organized by category and even alphabetized for the first time ever. But why? Is it worth all that work to have access to physical books? It is for me.
This isn’t an argument against e-books in favor of physical books. I don’t have any interest in convincing anyone of the superiority of either. To each their own. I don’t have an e-reader (I’m not sure if they even exist as stand-alone devices anymore), but I would like to get one for certain purposes. There are some titles that aren’t available as paper books. It would be nice to have a way to bring multiple books when I’m traveling without the space that physical books take up. But most of the time I want a real paper book to hold as I’m reading. Holding a book, being able to smell the paper and get a feel for its age is such an integral part of reading for me. There is a history to physical books. I’ve found old receipts, notes, pressed leaves, and all kind of things inside books. Some of them were things I put there. Some were left by the previous owner. A book has a trajectory through time. And often I am lucky enough to get an idea of some part of that trajectory. I get enjoyment out of that. It’s part of the experience for me.
When I was a child I would dig through my parents’ bookshelves pulling out old sci-fi novels. The cheaply printed mass markets are often the best in terms of having that smell of aged paper. Something about the lower quality paper I suppose. Those sense memories of being a child are recalled when I’m holding and smelling a book. As much as I love all bookstores, the used ones are the best because of that old paper smell. There’s an expectation of discovering the unexpected in a used bookstore. It’s like winning a small lottery when I see a title I never thought to look for. I can’t get that visceral connection with an e-book. Then there’s the ability to flip through a book. I like the feeling of turning the pages, of looking for something on an unknown page hoping to locate it by sight. It might be easier to be able to search the book electronically for a phrase, but often it’s just an idea of a phrase that I wouldn’t be able to find by searching. I need to manually page through the book and find the particular words and hope they catch my eye. In the process I may discover something else entirely.
Having a visual record of things I’ve read is important to me too. I can scan my shelves and see a book that I’d forgotten I’d read and instantly start to remember things about it. The physical presence makes that possible. Then there’s the emotions connected to the book. Both whatever I was feeling about my life at the time I read it and the emotions the book prompted. It’s a bit like the keys of a piano. Hit a certain key and you get a specific tone. Seeing a book on my shelf hits specific tones of emotion and memory. I have very clear images of what I was doing and what I was feeling when I read certain books. And all it takes to bring those memories up is seeing it on my shelf.
There is something more than the words on the page and the ideas contained within those words for me. Part of the experience of reading is the location I’m reading in, the feel of the book, the quality of holding a book so that it sits in just the right way. Some of my books are falling apart. I have to be cautious when reading them to prevent loose pages from falling out. That can be an inconvenience, yes, but it’s another part of the experience. Those inconveniences are things that can’t be avoided entirely in life anyway. I have realized that I don’t want a life in which everything is smooth, sterile, convenient, and trouble free, as nice as that sounds on the surface. I don’t want an excess of the opposite either. I need a balance of good and bad. Without the contrast you can’t have either one. I want a life that feels lived in. Books are a part of that life.