I was chatting with someone this week about books and publishing, and how the way we are reading has changed. The topic turned to the demise of the printed book, a concept I find to be absurd. “Paper books are becoming redundant,” declared my friend, “you won’t be buying a printed copy of a book soon. You’ll be reading all books that are published on an electronic device.”
I tried to explain how I feel about paper books, but he just didn’t understand. I’ve decided the world is split into two groups – the ones who ‘get it’ about physical books, and the ones who don’t.
Books to me are sacred objects. They always have been. I treasured the books I had and loved as a child, many of which were given to me by my grandmother to foster a 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 was not one for nostalgic attachments to things unfortunately, and despite my best efforts to hide my faves in a spot she’d never find, inevitably I’d come home from school one day and find my book stash had been removed and thrown away in the name of interior decorating. Books were clutter. To me, they were holy things. Such was my attachment to those particular books of my childhood, I have spent the years since scouring op-shops for replacements for every single one. I have managed to find my most special and favourite Little Golden Book, all the Ethel Turners I lost, and kept 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, 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 owned as a young child which told a Christmas story about a Japanese doll, the moon and a homeless man that lived under a bridge which I am still looking for. I still have dreams about that book. It too disappeared one day while I was at school, and the grief is still palpable. Maybe one day I’ll stumble across it. I certainly hope so. It feels like while ever that book is not in my home, a piece of me is out there in the world somewhere, trying to make its way home to me. Oh, dear.
It is probably pathological, this attachment I have to paper books. Maybe its because the books of my youth left my life so traumatically I am like this. The fact remains, I am like this. I have several bookshelves filled, and I mean filled, with paper books. This is the culled down situation. Before we moved here, I had a bookcase the size of a wall in my house full up, and another two smaller bookcases in my bedroom the same. I mostly buy books from op-shops, obviously because they’re cheaper, but also because I have this theory. Once a book has been bought new from a bookshop, it loses the faux glamour and marketing that was attached to it – which is a very good thing, but not necessarily for the book. Thats why you find so many like-new books in op-shops. They’ve often been read just once, and sometimes, not read at all. New booksellers do something sacreligious to books. They make them into products to be advertised, merchandised and marketed. They stack them on tables in a clinical fashion under big glossy posters, and spend piles of money designing their covers and try to create supermodels out of them – primped and streamlined and looking like they’d sit very nicely on your IKEA bedside or coffee table.
Once a book has been put into that paper bag at the bookseller, it loses all that. It’s just a book again, and it, and, unless it’s merely a supermodel after all, very grateful for it. Once it’s in your hands, it’s the books big chance to show its mettle. And if it is a good book, it will do its work. Enchant. Enrage. Capture. Inspire. Enthrall. Delight. Transform. Sometimes, none of these things happen. Sometimes it’s the books fault. Sometimes it’s the readers fault. Sometimes people buy books because they think they are supposed to, kind of like when they purchase school photographs. The books was something they had to have because everyone had one. That isn’t the books fault. It’s consumer failure.
Op-shops are full of books, some from deceased estates, some from over-enthusiastic mothers on a spring clean, and some that didn’t accomplish their mission because the person who bought them didn’t really love the book. There are an awful lot of supermodel books in op-shops. They stand there sulking and getting wrinkly, as whiny and shallow as ever they were. Perhaps the book buyers who discarded these sad specimens only loved what the bookseller told them the book would do for them. How tragic. I, on the other hand, don’t want anything to do with what some bookseller may tell me a book will do for me. How could they possible know what my aspirations for a book are? I believe good books have a voice that extends beyond what’s on its pages. The voice of a great book will carry itself up off the paper and find you – if you happen to be the kind of person who goes out looking for the voice of a great book. I am always out there looking for the voice of a great book. I go to op-shops for the purposes of standing in front of their bookshelves and closing my eyes and listening for the voice of a book calling to me. When I hear it, I open my eyes and sing silently to myself, “Here I come, ready or not!”
I also have a mental list of authors and titles I’ve heard about or read about which I am seeking. I have never not found a book I was earnestly seeking, in an op-shop. 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 – to me are living, giving things, worthy of special care and reverence. I have a special shelf where all the books written by people I know, either online or in person, stand together. Every now and then I go and look at them. There, I think to myself, is the evidence I am not insane or deluded. Writers who write are really making something out of nothing. Here are tangible examples of the something we can make, that they made, that I will make. I touch the spines of those books, willing the substance of them invoke some process in the universe whereby my thoughts become flesh and dwell amongst us too. Paper books show me that the ideas people think up, the emotions they feel and hopes they dream of can come to exist in the world with us, can become things we can show off, brush dust from and move around the house, even carrying with us to other places and other people. Paper books are magical things.
I tried arguing with my friend all of what I just told you. I tried explaining about the transubstantiation of ideas into paper and ink and how holy that is, and why I will never give up wanting to be a part of that. He didn’t get it. He said I ought to just get a tablet and get with the times. I’ll never do it. My books – and my childrens’ favourite books – are safe with me. I don’t want stories, and in particular, my favourite stories, to be lost forever. And I somehow doubt my imagination would have been captured forever if I’d read the Christmas story of the Japanese doll on a Kindle.