Why I Will Never Give Up On Paper BooksBlog, Books, Essays — By Jo Hilder on June 12, 2012 at 7:28 am
I was chatting with someone this week about books and publishing, and how the way everyone is reading has changed. The topic turned to this myth of the demise of the printed book. “Paper books are becoming redundant,” declared my friend, “you won’t be buying a printed copy of a book soon. You’ll be reading every book on an electronic device.”
No, I most certainly will not, said I. However, I fear my friend is at least half right. It seems that the world is splitting into two distinct groups – those who love, own and will continue to value paper books, and those who don’t.
Books to me are sacred objects. I’ve always felt this way, since I could read. I treasured the books I owned as a child, many of which were given to me by my grandmother to foster my love of reading. Anne Of Green Gables was a special favourite, as were the books of Australian author Ethel Turner (Seven Little Australians). My mum however was not one for nostalgic attachments to things, and despite my best efforts to hide my favourites in a spot she’d never find, inevitably I’d come home from school one day and find my book stash had been thrown away in the name of minimalist interior decorating. To my mum, my piles of books were mere clutter. It took a while for me to forgive her.
Such is my attachment to the books of my childhood that I have scoured op-shops for many years for replacements. I have managed to find my most special and favourite Little Golden Book, all the Ethel Turners I lost, and have sequestered in a cabinet two complete sets of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I still read. I have probably owned six sets of Little House books over the years, and dozens of copies of Seven Little Australians, but I make a point of giving them away to my friends’ young daughters whenever I can.
I have a particular picture book I have yet to find. It was a Christmas story about a Japanese doll, a homeless man that lived under a bridge and the moon. I still have dreams about that book. It disappeared one day while I was at school like the rest, and my grief for it is still palpable. While that book is not safely in my care, it feels like a piece of me is out there in the world somewhere, trying to make its way home to me. Oh yes, indeed, I’ve got it bad.
It’s probably pathological, this attachment I have to paper books. Maybe its because the books of my youth left my life so traumatically. There is a current manifestation of this obsession. I have several bookshelves filled, and I mean filled, with the real kinds of books. This is the culled down situation. I buy most of my books from op-shops because they’re cheap, but also because I have an aversion to new books bought from new book shops. Books you buy in a bookstore have a spell on them. New books in bookstores are groomed, packaged and tailored to connect with your various aspirations and expectations. They promise social credibility, short term amusement, perhaps even a glimpse of enlightenment, and certainly a couple of hours free from the conversation of the boring person next to you on a long-haul flight. The books they have especially high-hopes for in new book stores are stacked up in tall, stylish fashion underneath big glossy posters like a glowering group of supermodels, primped and streamlined and looking like they’d work very nicely on your IKEA coffee table with your japanese tea set and tangle of reclaimed driftwood.
Second-hand books, on the other hand, have had their spell broken. Op-shops are full of books without their former bewitchment – some from deceased estates, some from over-enthusiastic mothers on a spring clean, and some that simply weren’t able to accomplish their mission to impress, entertain, enthrall, inform or enlighten. Whilst some of the former supermodelly books just stand there sulking and getting wrinkly, as whiny and shallow as ever they were, the real books that were never supermodels in the first place do what they did right from the start. They call, like the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings calls out across all human consciousness, seeking the mind of the one who will take it where it wants to go. Home with me.
As well as standing around in op-shops listening for the voices of books that want to be taken home, I have a mental list of books I am always seeking. I have never not found a book in an op-shop I was earnestly wanting. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes a year, but I always find it. This is why I will never give up hope looking for my Christmas book.
Books – paper books – are living, giving things, worthy of special care and reverence. In amongst all the lovely treasures I have brought into my house, I have a special section for books written by people I know personally. (I’ve bought these mostly online, because books bought online never have a spell. But that’s a whole other post.) As a writer trying very hard to be published, every now and then I go and look at the stand of books written by people I know. There, I think to myself, is evidence that as a writer I am not insane or deluded. There are writers who write, real people in the real world who have made a something out of a nothing – and there are all their names sideways on my bookshelf. I touch the names of my friends printed on the spines of those books, all the time trying to invoke some process in the universe whereby my thoughts may become a thing of papery flesh and dwell amongst us too.
I tried arguing with my friend yesterday all of what I just told you. I tried explaining about the transubstantiation of ideas and thoughts into paper and ink and how holy that is, and why I will never give up wanting to be a part of it. He didn’t get it. He said I ought to just buy a tablet and get with the times. But I’ll never do it. My books – the ones I am yet to write, the ones that have called to me from lost and forgotten corners across the land, and even my childrens’ favourite books – are safe with me. I don’t want real books, and in particular, my favourite books, to be lost forever. I plan to make sure my children know what it means to huddle up with a book made out of paper, made out of something that once grew on the earth, made from the same dust they are an to which they will return. A book is the living, breathing body for an idea or a story, just like a human body holds the soul and spirit. To do away with the body of a book and consume the ideas without a tangible connection would be like only ever making love with someone in your mind, while you both sit behind glass. No, no, no. You need to feel them, hold them, be touched by them and touch them in order to really connect with, understand, appreciate, and yes, love them.
Perhaps my connection to my books really is pathological after all.
Yes, I am devoted to books made of paper. To me they are much more than a way to receive information or use up a rainy Saturday afternoon. I tried to explain to my friend exactly how I feel about paper books, but he just couldn’t appreciate my point of view. I think he sees me as a bit of a romantic, and I think on that point I agree with him. Besides, I sincerely doubt that my own heart, mind and soul would have been quite as captured if I’d read the Christmas story of the Japanese doll on an iPad. No, I will never, ever give up on paper books.