Why I love books

Mark Pack on why he can’t stop dabbling with a gadget that might be old but is quite a way from being obsolete.

Pile up my work and personal gadgets on a table at home and what do you find? One desktop computer. Two portable computers. One iPad. Two Blackberries. An iPod. A digital camera. A mobile WiFi hotspot. And quite simply the best USB accessory ever, a funfair from Hong Kong.

Then take your eyes away from the picture of gadget addiction and let them roam up any of the walls. You will see books, books and more books. I like my gadgets, but I love my books. There is no e-book reader in that monument to technology on the table.

What is it that makes me love books and spurn electronic book readers? It is the wonders of the printed format.

My books are ultra-reliable, with the text always instantly accessible the moment I take one off the shelf.

Even when a book suffers a catastrophic failure and the spine gives out, scattering pages on the floor, it is easy and quick to recover. Restoring corrupted data is a snip when it is a collection of pieces of paper, each one containing a sequential ordering system serial number telling you how to restore the data. (That’s page numbers to you and me.)

The books never need charging or recharging. I have books I have owned for decades, using and abusing them many times. Yet they are still always there, fully primed ready to be used the next  time. Paper life is measured in centuries, not the measly hours of battery life.

Clear my table of those gadgets and I can start with but one small book in my hand. When I want to branch out and refer to another book, it can take a place on table, open at the right place. To be joined if I wish by another book, and then a dictionary, then an atlas, then one more book and on and on until I have dozens of books scattered in front of me, all easily reachable and with my eyes able to dart instantly back and forth.

Not even a web browser groaning under multiple tabs or a computer with multiple screens can get close to providing the feast of visual information in front of me that the printed word can present.

And then there is the search. Oh of course, electronic books have their electronic word search. But searching simply for matches on precise words is the Ryanair of searching. Brutally effective and very limited.

With my printed books I can search using the full range of my memories. Memories of heavy books, small books, colourful books, plain books, something read near the end of a chapter, that book with the weird line spacing, something seen next to some photos, something where I turned the corner of a page. All the wonderful different variety of clues that half lodge in my memory can help me locate information in the way that a text search box spurns with its fanatical narrowness.

Books do memories well, and memories are not just for searching. They are for savouring. The battered book. The water damaged spine. The coffee marks on the cover. The blood stain on the inside. The folding and refolding of edges on certain pages. The notes scribbled in margins. The smudge of lipstick on the edge. The scattered range of items used as bookmarks, little history mementoes themselves. The occasional inscription in a childhood book from a long-forgotten adult or in a birthday present from a long-cherished friend. A book is far more than the collection of printed letters on its pages.

It is, moreover, a safe place for memories. Books are a permanent format for permanent ownership. No worries about future legal changes or technological discontinuities suddenly depriving me of books or making them unreadable. No fuzziness about whether you own or are just renting a book. Purchased and mine; simple and easy.

So it should be, for a book is far more than a mere transmission mechanism for words. It is a memory, an entertainment and a form.

E-readers with their obsession about weight and size and screen resolution are like those who go to see a play with a stopwatch in one hand and a clicker in the other, counting up how many words per minute they get out of that night’s play.

It is the performance that entertains, entrances and educates, not the mere use of an optimal transmission mechanism.

The look, the touch, the smell, the convenience, the memories – they make books lovable. Proper books, printed books, permanent books.

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About Author Profile: Mark Pack

Mark Pack is a public relations expert, blogger and leading Liberal Democrat commentator. His website is here.

12 thoughts on “Why I love books

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 2, 2012 at 09:40

    Dusty books.
    Mark, your good self and frau m would get along like a house on fire, as they used to say. We are drowning in books, my offer of a spot of shelf installation in the kharzi was at first met with disdain, then some thinks, well, why not, how civilised leading to but what will we choose.
    You did not mention the ‘in transit books’ those papery objects filling the motor’s boot, en route to the charity shop, the return journey from said establishment bringing back an equal or greater quantity. At last, perpetual motion is a fact.

    • mark.pack@gmail.com'
      May 2, 2012 at 13:02

      Ah yes, books in transit… like travellers on a station platform, either full of promise for a bright new future or about to be shunted off somewhere dreary.

      • bugbrit@live.com'
        May 2, 2012 at 14:03

        And the books boxed for the charity shop that didnt even make it to the boot yet, said boxes in the garage being raided now and volumes finding their way back to the shelves.

        ‘What on earth possessed me to put that one out?’

  2. Worm
    May 2, 2012 at 11:05

    I seriously cannot see the point of those e-reader things. Why have an ethereal electronic copy of something when you can have an actual book? Dont get it

  3. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    May 2, 2012 at 12:04

    You are of course preaching to the choir here.

    However, I have to mention that a lot of the books printed since about 1870 were printed on acid-pulped paper, and are disintegrating. A set of Mark Twain that I read when young, once owned by my grandparents, is all but crumbling. In The Death of Literature Alvin Kernan writes of a survey done at Yale in 1987, which showed 37% of books with brittle paper, and 87% acidic.

    As for search, well, provided that one can remember the color of spines, or the chapter, more or less, that covered the topic, well and good. I do think that well-done hypertext is very useful.

  4. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    May 2, 2012 at 13:09

    I don’t own a Kindle or similar but I can see the appeal of being able to download infinite out-of-print books for free or for negligible sums. The book is after all not the physical object.

    In the Speccie Charles Moore made an interesting point though about how the electronic reader’s experience of a book is changed by not knowing how far through you are:

    A new film of The Great Gatsby is coming soon, 90 years after the time in which when the story is set. I had never read the book until a few months ago, when it became the second book that I ever tackled on Kindle. I admired it greatly, but I was rather puzzled that Gatsby died only a quarter of the way through the book. Soon afterwards, I realised my mistake. Rather than enumerating pages, which obviously vary with the font size used, Kindle says in the corner of the screen what percentage of the book one has consumed. Gatsby died on, I think, 24 per cent. Checking, I discovered that the percentage referred to the Complete Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald which I had downloaded, rather than to the novel itself. But it was an interesting example of how one’s appreciation of a book is affected by one’s expectations. Even when I had discovered the truth, I still could not quite get over the idea that The Great Gatsby had been misproportioned by its author, and so my pleasure was reduced. I shall have to read it again.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      May 2, 2012 at 17:53

      There is an add-on for Firefox12 called ‘No Squint’ allowing bespoke zooming of individual web pages, ideal for us ancient chickens. However, it will not run on the Kindle PC based reader under Linux, come to think of it, nor does the reader. If I am expected to mince around the town peering at an overpriced gadget, colliding with lamp posts and stuff, well I shan’t, so there.

    • mark.pack@gmail.com'
      May 3, 2012 at 13:08

      That’s a really good point. Knowing how far through a book you are can give away the shape of the plot.

      Two examples. The reader knows there is a twist coming in Ender’s Game as you are so close to the end yet also apparently still in the preparation phase of the plot. On the other hand, in The Human Factor Graham Greene manages to keep the suspense about how the story is going to be resolved going even up until you know you are on the penultimate page – and without then having a sudden crass twist to resolve it all (http://www.markpack.org.uk/20301/the-human-factor-espionage-with-jokes-about-chocolate/).

  5. Gaw
    May 3, 2012 at 10:17

    Kids still get read to and learn to read using Real Books. As a consequence I can’t see us losing our emotional and habitual connection to them for at least another generation. So that’s a relief.

  6. davidjnolan@gmail.com'
    May 3, 2012 at 12:41

    For most of this article I was thinking, here is a man with a proper respect for printed books, then I got to this sentence “The notes scribbled in margins.” No! You are, of course, perfectly entitled to deface your books in this manner if you so choose, but, with the possible exception of overpriced training manuals for Micosoft products or project management methodologies, it is not something I have ever felt able to do.

    Having said that, I have on one or two occasions been highly amused by the pencil marginalia on library books I have borrowed. Most recently, a reader felt the urge to correct factual errors in a piece of gentle light-fiction, pointing out that water colour painters do not use canvas. The same reader’s annotation expressed outrage at the character of a used car salesman who claimed that women regard colour as the most important factor when choosing a new vehicle. The author of the book was female. I suspect the scribbler missed the joke.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      May 3, 2012 at 13:45

      Now, really. I wouldn’t write in somebody else’s books–though I once knew a fellow who did write in library books, and thought that it enhanced the value; I believe that for many years since he has taught at a college that takes itself very seriously.

      But my own? All the time, and for various purposes. Sometimes I do so with indignation, as in the case of the jotter who vindicated women’s car shopping, but usually as to bad writing, bad history, and so on. More often I note references forward and back, mark things to check back on and so forth. After all, weren’t marginalia part of the higher-grade package from the book handlers in The Best of Myles?

  7. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    May 4, 2012 at 11:41

    Last night I dreamt I’d moved beyond paper and electronic books to a service involving celebrities visiting me at home and reading while I lounged, Nero-like, and scoffed. I had a concrete ramp put in to enable Joan Collins easy access to read from her: ‘The Picture of Doreen Gray‘, a semi-autobiographical account of the painting she keeps in her attic (Lucian Freud c1956). On arrival, walking ramrod straight, she kicked the ramp reducing it to half a ton of rubble, and not a scratch on her hobnails. Ian McKellen came and read from Richard lll. By the time he reached ‘I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up………….’ he was Richard lll, called me Clarence, and tried to drown me in a vat of Tetley’s bitter. Katie Price arrived to read from ‘Cantilever or Suspension – Supporting top-heavy structures’. Upping the literary quality, Elton John and Wayne Rooney turned up to read from their collaboration ‘The Restored Follicle – A Guide to 21st Century Thatching’, and Paxman spat out his ‘Dicks Without Balls – Political Abnormalities’. I woke in a sweat but was consoled to find that JKJ’s glorious Three Men In a Boat remained intact on the shelf seemingly begging me to read it again.

    I’m with you, Mark.

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