Friday, August 31, 2012

"Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated."

No:  not Mark Twain this time, but the Printed Book.

I’ve often written about how the media keeps reporting the death of the printed book; about how printed books are used as a medium for sculpture;  

about how many use them for purely “decorative” purposes; about how the printed book is not as “pure” an experience as is reading an eBook.  We book lovers – and booksellers! – can be moved to feelings of despair.
But despair not.

Negative reports about booksellers and books are a part of the printed book’s history from its birth.  Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type allowed large print runs rather than the calligraphed scrolls that required the laborious and skilled labor of scribes; but with the publication of the GUTENBERG BIBLE, the question of whether books should be made for ‘all’ to read was cause for worry – and even anger – by the church, as it wanted to be the only interpreter of the holy book. 

Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center, University of Texas
In a more recent diatribe, no less a philosopher than John Locke wrote this of books and booksellers in 1704:

by Edward Gorey for his agent, John Locke, the lineal descendant of philosopher Locke

So today’s preponderance of wishes for and reports of the “death of the printed book” is, perhaps, merely the most recent in a long history of debates on this topic.

And along with examples of [what I consider] the misuse and denigration of the printed book, I’ve had enthusiastic response to posts about the uniqueness of books as objects; of how people love rooms filled with books, love public and personal libraries of all kinds; how a room full of books can be descriptive of its owner’s character.  (Perhaps that’s why rooms meant to convey intelligence – as in the political interview show mentioned in an earlier post – often have as background a wall of overstuffed bookshelves.

People post videos and pictures of libraries on Facebook and elsewhere. 

Library in Paris

Exeter Library

One of my favorites.

They create imaginative bookshelves and "Little Libraries."

Little Free Library

Little Free Memorial Library

They go to book readings and have books signed by their authors.

Last week I went to a well-attended book reading of author Matthew Dicks’ new novel, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND.  It’s a book about…well, it’s a book about a boy and his imaginary friend!  But it’s also a love story; a story of friendship, devotion and self-sacrifice; a story that celebrates and cherishes those who are “different” from most, and helps the reader to understand and cherish them too.

This is the author’s third book, and with each book, the audience for his readings grows.  Why?

Matt is a good and entertaining reader; is that why they drive long distances to see him?  Readers enjoyed his first two novels; is that why they come?

Of course, the answer is “yes” to both those questions.  But I believe that they also come to make a connection with the author and with other like-minded readers; they want to make a connection through a book.

And I mean a printed book.

After all, had they come just to hear him speak, they could have downloaded the book and had the eBook in a minute:  no need to stand in line to pay for it. 

But it was the printed book – a “real” book! – that made “real” communication between author and reader and other readers possible.

“To whom should I inscribe this,” asked the author?  

And there’s the opening:  who? why?  Discussions about this novel and his previous ones begin; what those novels meant to the reader; Matt even recommends books by other authors that he admires. 

And there on the half-title is the reader’s “collaboration” with the author on the words the author has inscribed there.  Real.  Tangible.

What’s his penmanship like?  Did he use marker or ballpoint? (Try to get ballpoint; have one with you just in case!)  You can feel the paper – a bit rough in this book – and the indentations made by the pen:  deep? shallow?  You can remember how you felt and how the author looked during this collaboration between you.  And you can bring the book home with you and revisit this page again and again.  It is not just words; it’s personal:  it’s your book and nobody else’s!

Read it; hold it, touch it, smell it.  Use your senses to enjoy the complete experience of reading.

Take the sense of smell, for example.  All books have a scent, as do the rooms that house them.  MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND smells a bit woody, which works well with the slight roughness of the paper and, coincidentally, can be imagined to reflect the plot and mood of the book:  lost (as if in a forest) and then found.  A stretch, I know, but such a stretch is possible for the reader to imagine with a printed book and is simply not possible with an eBook, not possible when presented with the words alone.

Old books have a particular scent of their own which, of course, has nothing to do with the their subject; the paper in books have a particular property that makes books smell so good, especially as they age:

old book smell
Did you know?

"Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting
the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are 
closely related to vanillin.  When made into paper and 
stored for years, it breaks down and smells good.  Which is
how divine providence has arranged for secondhand 
bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, 
subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us."

- Perfumes:  The Guide

Go to a bookstore and take a whiff:  and then take a whiff home with you.

The printed book is not dead; and for me it remains a truism that, as Bell's Books' logo has it,


Marash Girl said...

Alright, girl! You go!

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, don’t you love the expression “We’re on the same page”? You and I are often on the same page, for many and various reasons. Naturally, as a fellow bookseller, I would love this post about the delights of physical books, but you have given me new perspectives to consider. People do come into my bookstore and inhale and sigh and exclaim, “I just love the smell of old books!” and you’ve explained to me why they do.

In general, I believe people love books AND want to meet their authors in person AND want to gather together face to face and in groups instead of simply online in chat rooms because we are NOT DISEMBODIED MINDS (“brains in vats”)! Our (human) being is physical, mental, and spiritual, and books have in common with other human beings that they feed all three aspects of our nature at once.

As for the history and future of the “death of books” discussion, we booksellers get a lot of questions on it, don’t we? Here’s what I should have said a year ago in a speech I neglected to give:

I wish our two bookstores were not so far apart and that we could visit each other on a regular basis. Happy Labor Day weekend!

A.H. in Egremont said...

Fabulous blog Helen! Only you have the magic to bring a story to light that I know.

Barbara J. said...

Loved the "Reports of my Death ...." installment, and I say thee, Yea!

Ester said...

Ester said...

A great blog, You are full of
suprises, and getting bettter
all the time.

September 3 2012

BBS IN CA said...

I so agree and can't wait to get to a bookstore to smell the vanilla!!