“They look untidy.”
I bridle, hackles rise. “They’re not there to look tidy.”
“You can’t possibly have read them all.”
The eyes narrow. “Wanna bet?” Okay, that wasn’t strictly true. I hadn’t read the leftover footballer’s memoirs I’d bought him for Christmas. Or the car mechanic’s manuals. Nor had I any intention of doing so.
The books were always a contentious problem. In an ideal world there would be a room where I could simply insulate myself from the world with wall to wall volumes, stacked perhaps by author or even subject with utter disregard for aesthetics. On open fire, a comfy chair, dog asleep on the rug and a glass of wine… Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world and the books had, to be fair, taken up residence in practically every available space. In a house that had suddenly filled with extra people, that was admittedly not ideal.
Gradually the books were consigned, shelf by shelf, to the attic. Not the kind of attic that is easily accessible either, but the overstuffed loft attainable only by means of a precarious ladder that requires great delicacy when navigating the beams and cobwebs.
He never understood that by banishing the books I felt that he was burying part of me and I, of course, was far too submissive and needy to put my foot down. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t matter. I could get into the loft every so often and change the handful of books I had to hand; I could also re-read in memory the images conjured by decades of stories and dredge up the knowledge gleaned over the years. I was not allowed to read in anyone else’s presence anyway. The TV was the central fact of life in the house. Reading was deemed antisocial.
Needless to say that relationship failed in obvious terms, though in as far as it taught me to wake up and stop being such a mouse, it was a resounding success. I learned a lot about myself, little of it pleasant. But the books came back downstairs where they now reside, untidily and gloriously, in every possible place.
I had, however, been given a Kindle by my son. The discreet little device allowed me to carry a library in my handbag, turning it into a portable manifestation of L-space. I once more had books to read, but grateful though I was for the convenience and accessibility of the written word, it lacked that special something. It wasn’t just the tactile or olfactory presence of a book, there is something about the printed word that feels different. I never felt the same relationship with e-books that I do with their paper counterparts, in spite of the undoubted joy of being able to continue reading a book on my phone in a queue or waiting room.
I know the ecological arguments against paper, though I am yet to be convinced that plastic and electronics are going to be friendlier long term. I know too the feeling of holding a book hundreds of years old that needs only the technology of eyes and mind to use it in the same way it was first read.
This morning I saw an article on the neuroscience behind the reading process that probably explains the difference. It seems we really don’t build the same relationship with an e-book that we do with paper. We skim, attention skips, we get distracted… we don’t read deeply and assimilate the ideas in the same way.
Although motivated by a joint love of old-fashioned books and the kind of bookshop that is, according to Terry Pratchett “just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read”, it was for this reason, though known only instinctively, that we chose to produce paper copies of our books as well as the more economical e-book.
I will never forget the first time I held a book that had my name on the cover; or my mother’s voice when she unwrapped a copy of the first of her books in print; or the way eyes light up when a new book is delivered and unwrapped, usually with a celebratory pint. Or chasing across town to find the postman who only left a card instead of the books. The thrill of that far surpasses a download.
I need more bookshelves … I hope I always will.