Dispatches | May 23, 2011

I recently started liking books again.  I attribute this in part to the return of warm weather to Missouri, though I admit that if pressed I would have trouble justifying the correlation between the two things.  I also chalk my returned affection for books up to the fact that I recently resumed purchasing new books – something that’s remarkable for me, because four years ago I chose to embark on five years of education poverty and, of course, I have one more year of intellectual enrichment, coupled with material disappointment, to endure.

Books are expensive, so I find it hard to do what I consider to be the duty of an engaged reader – not to mention a writer – and buy them.  But I’ve been doing it lately anyway, and so I’ve had to consider what I should do with these books after I’ve read them; for the first time in a long time, I cannot simply walk them back to the library.  Putting them on my shelf doesn’t appeal to me like it used to.

I had a friend, years ago, who would complain very bitterly whenever he saw money that was not being treated for what it was – when, for example, the owner of a small business framed, behind the counter, the first dollar her establishment had ever generated.  Money was meant for circulation, my friend protested – not for being gazed upon by disinterested customers.

I have been trying, lately, to convince myself that the same is true of books.  I tend to put them on my shelf and let them sit there until I move to a new dwelling place, which happens on average once every year-and-a-half, at which point I shuffle and rearrange them on the same shelves somewhere else.  I read most of my books once – some never – and for years after I’m through with them I merely glance at their spines on my way to the kitchen.  Real bibliophiles have no problem with this; Anne Fadiman’s essays in Ex Libris (which I own and hasn’t moved in two years) attests to that.  For some, books are fully alive merely sitting on a shelf, filled near to bursting with potential energy.

I like books an awful lot, but I don’t quite love them in the unconditional way that many people do, declaring them art objects far more valuable than the money spent on them.  I sympathize with that approach, but I don’t espouse it.  As good as books have been to me on the whole, too many of them have stressed me out; I’ll start one, realize soon after that I don’t like it, but be unable to stop reading it out of a sense of obligation I wish I could shake off but never can.  The ordeal of reading it will drag on, and by the time I’ve finally given up, I’ll inhabit a state in which I never want to see another book again.

I am reluctant to complain in this way about books when I’m around certain people, particularly e-reader enthusiasts – e-reader salespersons, really – who would offer their electronic devices as remedies to my problem.  Perhaps it would be easier to let go of a book that didn’t quite do it for me, if all I had to do was close a file and open another.  I doubt it.  As much as books can frustrate me, to own a Kindle is no solution.

By now it’s old, old news, but I’ll tell it again.  The Kindle fails to replicate certain very smart design features of books.  At some point in my adolescence I found – as I’d never tried it before – that after I had read a book through, I was able to recall the general region in a given text of any passage that later interested me. If I wanted to find the scene in The Big Sleep wherein Carmen Sternwood is discovered naked in Philip Marlowe’s bed (and I did), I could find it within seconds, and not because of the page numbers, handy as they are, but because I had more or less mapped the book as I’d read it, mentally, without intending to.  This was a revelation to me, and it was also true of books not by Raymond Chandler.  I see it, today, not as proof of what an impressive intellect I have, but rather of one of the triumphs of the book.  When one reads a book, one has a tactile experience with it, one that leaves an imprint – or so I’m convinced.  I’m aware that e-readers have search features, but I suspect that my search method was not only more efficient, but more rewarding.

This post is getting to be too long for the Internet, so I’ll get to what will have to pass for the point of all this, which is, I suppose, that as far as I’m concerned physical books are superior to e-books not because books are laudable, beautiful artifacts, but because they simply work better.  I find this worth stating because while the struggle between books and electric books has raged long enough to get rather tiresome, too often do I see the books-as-artifacts argument being made.  I, and many others, I suspect, are less interested in the beauty of the book than they are in what it does, and I would sacrifice some – or much – of the beauty of books if it made them cheaper without shorting the author and publisher.  It would enable me to buy more of them, and it might take some of the wind out of the sails of companies that offer books at tremendous discounts that are good for everyone but the authors and publishers.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.