Despite the rush as i left the house, i still found time to dash back upstairs to grab a book. But which to take? Two sat on my desk: Clark Quinn’s new book on ‘innovation‘ or Slash’s biography? Now, Clark’s a cool guy, and his book has a cool cover, but i have to admit Slash won out. It was going to be a long train journey and i can’t bear to be away from home without a book. The allure of debauched rock ‘n’ roll was irresistible in the end.
Of course, in the event i didn’t read a page, opting instead to write on the iPad, but i still felt better for it being there.
I do, like the rest of you no doubt, have a hundred digital books on the iPad, unread and largely a response to my inherent guilt at not having read more Hemingway as a student. I am reassured by it’s very presence in the iBookstore, although i detest reading books on the device.
When it comes to reading books, i’m very much a luddite, as my home reflects: creaking shelves bear testament to four decades of inveterate and impulsive purchases. At last count, i reckon i’ve read about half, but it’s ok because i’m a better person by osmosis through cohabiting with the rest.
Our relationship with books is evolving, both individually and as a society: contrary to received wisdom, they have stubbornly refused to die. The format of the physical book has a distinct appeal: it’s both comforting and comfortable, something that eludes my iPad, no matter how much i love it. I could of course buy a Kindle: it’s not as though i’m shy of technology, but i suspect the weight of yet another charger to carry around may prove the final straw and, when it comes to it, Slash doesn’t run out of battery.
As well as their physical format, books are a conceptual framework, a structure we write within that captures a coherent story. Endlessly scrollable web pages are all well and good, but most devices maintain the illusion of the printed and numbered page, even though they don’t need to. It’s just something embedded in our mindset: ‘turning another page‘, ‘starting a new chapter‘, ‘closing the book‘. They’ve permeated our language and culture and shaped how we structure knowledge and stories.
Aside from occasionally actually reading them, we do a lot with books: we share them as tokens of respect, love and reinforcement. We write messages in them or use them to prop up our laptops. We love them for themselves, displaying them in pride of place, in long rows, on dusty shelves or, in the case of my friend Emma, colour coordinated through two sides of the lounge. I admire the organisation, even if my own taxonomy is based less on hue, more on chronology and heft.
Occasionally, we write them.
I used to keep them pristine but a joy of adulthood was learning it was ok for me to annotate them, to fill the margins with my spidery scrawls, circle and underline, but never to neon highlight: some things are a step too far. That was about the extent of my rebellion. Slash would not approve.
We collect books, using them to curate our space, to define the parameters of our curiosity: we use them to boast subliminally about our academic and literary prowess. Have you really read Cloud Atlas? My copy is as untouched as the day my mother gave it to me. I did survive the film though.
Books are reflective: whilst so much of the media at our fingertips and in our pockets is cursory and immediate, the processes of writing and reading a book require a certain commitment, a certain dedication.
Some books tell us what to do: gardening, cooking, yoga or home improvement. For some, their religious texts. They are authoritative and didactic, disciplinary and coercive. Others are wonderfully abstract and self indulgent, creative in both content and structure, even in the materials they are made of.
The books we buy, the books we share, these are part of the social structures that tie us together, forging bonds and establishing commonality in thought and deed. Books serve a unifying function in our societies (although they can also be agents of change, subversive and secretive stories, handed under the table and scanned under the sheets at night).
Unlike a webpage, a book is a snapshot in time: it’s what the author thought when they wrote it, when they typed the last full stop. Period. It almost certainly doesn’t reflect exactly what they think now (just as so many of my own books reflect my studies and interests in the past: the fossilised strata of my own growth and thinking).
Books are beautiful, and whilst i celebrate and delight in the opportunities to write and share through digital and social channels, there’s nothing quite like a good book to make the world a better place.