We recently bought my Father-in-Law a Kindle as an early Christmas present. He’s been a voracious reader all his life, and he loves it. In part, this is because he’s nearly 82 years old, and his eyesight’s not what it used to be, so he likes that he can enlarge the text size. We bought it ‘early’ as he was going on holiday to Spain, and could take with him a number of books all in the one slimline device. I’m telling you all this to demonstrate that I’m not a complete Luddite who rejects the concept of e-readers.
On the other hand, I bloody love physical products like books, DVDs and CDs. If I really want the whole album, I’ll definitely buy the CD. Similarly, I’d much rather watch a DVD than simply stream a film. And as for books…
Maybe I’m just old-school or old-fashioned, but the sensory physicality of books (and CDs/DVDs) pleases me. The sight of a well-stacked shelf with interesting colours & typography sparks my curiosity. I want to reach out and touch, run my fingers along the list of titles until I choose one for further inspection or inspiration. I equally like a pristine spine or a well-thumbed, creased book cover. And while my CD collection is definitely alphabetised (why wouldn’t it be?!), my books aren’t even organised in any way, except (perhaps…) by size on the shelf, and by author (but not alphabetically!). In days gone by, a man / church / institution could be judged by the size and quality of his library, as miles of floor-to-ceiling shelves in stately homes around the country still bear witness.
There’s something very beautiful and intimate about a person’s bookshelves (or CD & DVD racks). They can be extraordinarily revealing, not only about our personal choices and preferences, but also our history. Personal dedications inside the covers identify presents or love tokens, or place them in time. For a number of years I wrote my name, the date, and where I was living at the time inside all my books. Thinking back now, I don’t know why I stopped.
Our shelves include out-of-date politics textbooks from my degree, densely-printed music tomes from Rachel’s and indeed box files of sheet music, a shelf of French language novels including Albert Camus & Milan Kundera. We’ve got everything by Iain Banks and Jane Austen, lots of Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan. There are lots of gardening ‘manuals’, travel guides from to some far-off places from the days Before Children and a very old but still priceless edition of The Readers Digest DIY ‘Bible’.
Apparently Vladimir Nabokov claimed his favourite reader was someone with a dictionary and a pencil. As this excellent homage to marginalia suggests, it’s not only the bookshelves that contain personal treasures. Scribbles, notes, underlining, highlighted passages all reveal significance and meaning to their owner, which would otherwise be long-since lost. Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the great mathematical puzzles, was apparently once just a boastful aside in a margin too-small to contain the full description.
I recently read the excellent Into The Wild, which tells the baffling tale of Chris McCandless, who after graduating from college, roamed the vast spaces of the US, before dying of starvation in an abandoned bus, miles from anywhere in the Alaskan wilderness. When his body was found, the bus also contained books by Thoreau and Jack London into which he had written countless comments, responses and thoughts. Without these, his apparent motivation and state of mind would have been lost forever.
In recent weeks, the (still) largest chain of UK booksellers, Waterstones, has started to sell Amazon e-readers in its stores. I realise some commentators applaud it as a (last-gasp?) attempt to retain customers coming into the stores, but I tend to agree with this article. I can’t believe that any good will come of it. It’s already causing problems (if we believe the press) with staff having to sell something they’re not really informed to sell, and while it might attract customers in the run-up to Christmas, I Reckon those people will be snuggled up in front of their laptops come January, downloading new titles for their new devices, and not many of them will be at Waterstones’ website.
I’ve already waxed lyrical about our local bookshop, but it’s everything I love about a great bookshop. The staff really care about books, they have opinions about what they like, they care about what their customers like, they don’t mind (much) if you go in to escape the rain for 15 minutes and don’t buy anything. They will order pretty much anything for you and it arrives in 48 hours. And while I do buy books from Amazon as well as from them, I’m holding out against the Kindle and its kind. Books are important.