The beauty and burden of books
After spending quite some time over the last weeks in looking at e-readers, and doing a lot of talking about digital publishing in general, I thought it would be amusing and relevant to reprint this article I originally wrote nearly 20 years ago, talking about my love for hardcopy books and the problems it caused me. Particularly interesting (and in the event, quite wrong) are my speculations about the likelihood of electronic books.
The Beauty and Burden of Books
(First published in September 1992)
There’s no doubt about it. I have too many books.
Too many is defined as: more books than I have shelf space for. My wife and I have instituted a very sensible rule which says that I’m not allowed to put up any more bookshelves; and I’m not allowed to buy any more books unless there is shelf space for them.
What this means is that I have to constantly cull my existing collection to get rid of the books that I don’t consider essential, to make room for any new ones.
And when I do this every few months (when my attempts to squash another new book on a shelf has resulted in a cascade over the side), I keep coming back to the basic philosophy of why I like to own books. My wife asks from time to time about a new purchase: “Couldn’t you get it from the library?”. Well, in some cases I could, but dammit, I want to own the book. But why? What are the reasons we want to possess books and keep them near us?
To read, yes. I don’t ever buy a book I don’t think I am going to read. I’m not a collector of first editions or of art books. If I buy a book, it is because I’d like to read it. Nevertheless, I calculate that I’ve only read about 60% of my collection. Out of a total of some 2,500 books, that means that I own some 1,000 books I haven’t read. Good grief! Will I ever read all of those books? Highly unlikely. And yet I still buy new books.
But why keep a book once I have read it? To re-read, of course. I love re-reading favourite books. I especially re-read a lot when my mind is at a low ebb. Re-reading is enjoyable because you know there aren’t going to be any unpleasant surprises!
And I do like to have reference books. I love to be able to look something up, either from casual interest, or because of a crossword or a competition in a newspaper, or to help my daughter with her homework. It peeves me no end if I can’t find the answer to some question in my own library.
Why else do I like to own books? I think a large part of it is just the sheer aesthetic pleasure of books. A well-made book is a beautiful thing to look at and handle. And rows of books generally look wonderful on the shelves, full of variety and interest. Despite my passion for computers, I can’t imagine electronic versions ever totally replacing the traditional book. There’s too much of a sensual pleasure in holding a book, feeling its weight and the texture of the cover under one’s fingers, turn ing the pages and being able to see at a glance how far you are from the end. In a very real sense, the technology of the printed book, the brilliantly appropriate techniques crafted and honed over nearly two thousand years, will take a lot of beating. Only when a computer version looks, feels and works like a book will there be substantial replacement of works printed in the traditional way.
But there is one dreaded aspect of books, and that is moving them. The volume and weight of numbers of books, once you take them down from the shelves, is simply astonishing. You can look up at a row of books on the shelves and think that you’ll easily fit them into a few cardboard boxes; but then when you try to do it, you find that you have filled all your boxes to the point where they are too heavy to lift, and you’ve only cleared half a shelf.
It’s also true that books have very little resale value. It makes me almost ill to see school fetes or markets selling hardback books for as little as 10 or 20 cents. To me, this devalues the worth and dignity of books.
Despite all that, I still love to own books, and I’ll certainly keep on buying them. I think perhaps half of the pleasure is browsing in a bookstore and finding a new treasure: a book long-sought-for, or a new volume dealing with a subject I’m really interested in.
Melbourne is reasonably well served with bookstores, but the best bookstores I’ve been to in Australia have been in Sydney, where they seem able to support quite specialist and academic bookstores like Abbeys. Their bookstores seem also to be much bigger: there’s nowhere in Melbourne as big as the Sydney Angus & Robertsons or their Dymock’s.
But when, clutching my new treasure, I get home and look up at the shelves, there’s that dreaded sinking feeling as I think:
“Now where is this going to fit…?”