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Object Lesson

Why we need physical books

Lisa Maree Williams /Getty Images

The committed bibliophile is cousin to the obsessive, an easily seduced accumulator frequently struck with frisson. Cram your home with books, and you’re lovingly called a collector; cram it with old newspapers, and you’re derisively called a hoarder. But be honest: The collector is a hoarder, too—a discriminating and noble-minded hoarder, perhaps, but a hoarder just the same.

Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to remember. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”

A pleasing vista onto the early twentieth-century life of one English writer, Gissing’s autobiographical novel is also an effusive homage to book love. “There were books of which I had passionate need,” says Ryecroft, “books more necessary to me than bodily nourishment. I could see them, of course, at the British Museum, but that was not at all the same thing as having and holding them”—to have and to hold—“my own property, on my own shelf.” In case you don’t quite take Ryecroft’s point, he later repeats “exultant” when recalling that afternoon of finding the Gibbon—“the exultant happiness.”1 Exultation is, after all, exactly what the bibliophile feels most among his many treasures.

Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls. Every collector knows the probably apocryphal story of the nineteenth-century composer and bibliophile Charles-Valentin Alkan, found dead in an avalanche of his own books, crushed when his shelves upended onto him. Like the sex addict who suffers an aortic catastrophe during coitus, Alkan, at least, died smiling.

Although some see a distinction between the bibliophile and the collector, your Merriam Webster’s nicely insists that “bibliophile” means both one who loves books and one who collects them, which makes supreme sense to me—I can’t conceive of one who loves books but doesn’t collect them, or one who collects books but doesn’t love them. I employ “collector” as Robertson Davies does in his essay “Book Collecting”: not as a quester after books both rare and valuable, but as a gatherer of all books that match his interests. If you have lots of interests, you better have lots of rooms, and mighty floorboards to boot.2

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” Potency of life, purest efficacy, living intellect: These are the world-enhancing elements you have in any well-made book worth reading.

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction—there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader—as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves. The personal library also heaves in reproach each time you’re tempted to grab the laptop and gypsy from one half-witted Web page to another. If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.3

But you might have noticed: The book as a physical, cultural object is worth very little and losing value every quarter, it seems. As any urbanite knows, you’ll find them in boxes in alleyways on the first of every month—people can’t give them away. And now that more readers are choosing the electronic alternative, the illuminated convenience of downloading books and storing them in the troposphere where they remain accessible but simulated ... well, I’ll let James Salter pull the alarm. “A tide is coming in,” he wrote in 2012, “and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance.”

One tide or another is always surging in on us—technology always makes certain modes of consumption obsolete, and for much of that obsolescence we can be grateful—but perhaps we should heed Salter’s anxiety here, because bibliophiles won’t be the only ones left denuded should the physical book be put to death.

Su Blackwell, The Book of the Lost, 2011; courtesy Art Made from Books by Laura Heyenga published by Chronicle Books, 2013.

My own book collecting began in high school, at just about the time I was certain that literature would be my life—not an occupation but an existence. It’s been a back-aching, U-Hauling two decades because I’ve resided in a dozen homes across four different states. I’ve also inherited a book collection from a beloved mentor, a colossus that sits boxed and bulging in my grandparents’ basement in New Jersey—I can’t wedge any more books into our Boston home without inciting my spouse and children to mutiny. In the mid-’90s, when my grandparents lived near the Raritan River, I stored several hundred titles in a first-floor bedroom, and when the river swallowed half the town one year, all those books were swallowed, too. After the waters retreated, I laid the books out in the sun on the sidewalk, cataloging my losses in a kind of requiem.4 In 1941, Rose Macaulay wrote beautifully about losing her library, her whole apartment, in the Blitz—“a drift of loose, scorched pages fallen through three floors to street-level, and there lying sodden in a mass of wreckage smelling of mortality”—and I’ve never read that essay without blurred vision.

When a bibliophile reads a classic, he tends to remember most vividly those portions that might by chance speak to an ardor for books—he’s pleased to find some kinship with the greats—and so some of my most dominant memories of Rousseau’s Confessions or Boswell’s Life of Johnson or Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or Woolf’s Night and Day or Orwell’s Coming Up for Air happen to be those swaths of prose which confirm my own hunch that a life with books is more meaningful than a life without books. As a child reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I was spun around by that mention of Captain Nemo’s personal library aboard his vessel, all 12,000 tomes of it. The narrator, Pierre Aronnax, comments that Nemo must have “six or seven thousand volumes,” and Nemo replies, “Twelve thousand, M. Aronnax. These are the only ties which bind me to the earth.” If Nemo indeed owned 12,000 books, I knew, the way a beast knows the coming season, that I wanted 12,000, too.

One collects books for reasons that are, of course, acutely personal, but I have a memory of the afternoon when I was shown how others perceive the flexing brawn of a book collection. At 19 years old, in surrender from an unkillable Northeast winter, I moved to South Carolina, and one day a police officer arrived at my apartment to question me about cash that had been thieved from someone with whom I’d spent a night—she thought the thief was me and not, as it turned out, her roommate. There were prints on the box from which the cash had been stolen, and the officer asked if I’d be willing to go to the station to have my own prints taken. Of course I would, I said, and as I asked for driving directions, he squinted at the bookshelves. “All those books,” he said, and then asked the infamous cliché of a question, the question that occurs only to nonreaders: “You read all those books?” I told him that I’d read fewer than half—the truth was that I’d read fewer than half of half—and he said, “Well clearly the thief’s not you. No one smart enough to read all those books is dumb enough to steal cash from such a pretty gal.” And then he began walking his fingertips along the spines as if he’d just realized that the books might confer on him some magical capacity.5

He’d have been right about the capacity but wrong about the magic. A life with books is a life of pleasure, yes, but also a life of work. Not just the work of lugging their heft each time you move, but the work of reading them, the work of discernment, of accepting the loquacity of the world’s bliss and hurt and boredom, of welcoming both small and seismic shifts to your selfhood, of attempting to earn those intimations of insight that force the world briefly into focus. That’s the reason the cop was wrong in thinking that readers are smart by default: Dedicated readers are precisely those who understand the Socratic inkling that they aren’t smart enough, will never be smart enough—the wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books. Anthony Burgess once suggested that “book” is an acronym for “Box Of Organized Knowledge,” and the collector is pantingly desperate for proximity to that knowledge—he wants to be buffeted, bracketed, bulletproofed by books. Leigh Hunt wrote of literally walling himself in with his collection: “I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather. If the wind comes through a passage, I look about to see how I can fence it off by a better disposition of my movables. ... When I speak of being in contact with my books, I mean it literally. I like to lean my head against them.”

The physicality of the book, the sensuality of it—Oliver Wendell Holmes called his collection “my literary harem”—the book as a body that permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence, its offer of reciprocity, of intercourse—this is what many of us seek in the book as object. In his bantam essay on book love, Anatole France starts off swinging: “There is no true love without some sensuality. One is not happy in books unless one loves to caress them.”6 There was little that escaped the Updikian caress, and he wrote more than once about the pleasures and peculiarities of book collecting. In an essay called “The Unread Book Route,” about A History of Japan to 1334, Updike wrote: “The physical presence of this book, so substantial, so fresh, the edges so trim, the type so tasty, reawakens in me, like a Proustian talisman, the emotions I experienced when, in my youth, I ordered it.” Leave it to the unerringly sensual and curious Updike to a) refer to book type as “tasty,” and b) think as a youth that he needed to know something about Japan prior to 1334.

Updike’s point about the Proustian talisman is a crucial one for bibliophiles: Their collections are not only proof of their evolution but monuments to their past, fragrant and visual stimulators of recall. Gissing’s hero Ryecroft says just that: “I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.” Across a collector’s bookshelves, upright and alert like uniformed sentinels, are segments of his personal history, segments that he needs to summon in order to ascertain himself fully, which is part of his motive for reading books in the first place—whatever else it is, a life with books is incentive to remember, and in remembering, understand. Borges said: “My father’s library was the capital event in my life. The truth is that I have never left it.” Borges’s own books, then, are both collection and connection, an emotional umbilical to his father. In his autobiography The Words, Sartre spends several pages of the first chapter recalling his grandfather’s book love and the sanctity of the old man’s library, how as a boy Sartre secretly touched those much revered tomes, “to honor my hands with their dust,” and in that honoring, the honing of affection for his dear grandfather.7

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also.8 Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.9

One of the most imperishable notions ever set down about a personal library can be found inside Sven Birkerts’s essay “Notes from a Confession.” Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” of the “expectant tranquility” of sitting before his library: “Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.” Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity—those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.

I’m sorry but your Nook has no presence.

Forgoing physicality, readers of e-books defraud themselves of the communion which emerges from that physicality. Because if Max Frisch is correct in defining technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it,” then one might argue that we aren’t really experiencing a novel or poems on our e-readers. We might be reading them—although I find that an e-reader’s scrolling and swiping are invitations to skim, not to read—but fully experiencing them is something else altogether.

You scroll and swipe and click your way through your life, scanning screens for information and interruption, screens that force you into a want of rapidity. Why you’d welcome another screen in your life, another enticement to rapidity and diversion, is a question you might ask yourself. Paradise Lost will not put up with rapidity and diversion, and that is exactly why, for some of us, a physical book will always be superior reading, because it allows you to be alone with yourself, to sit in solidarity with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination. A physical book makes it possible to fend off the nausea roused by the electronic despotism we’ve let into our lives—it doesn’t permit blinking, swiping, scrolling, popping-up impediments to your concentration, doesn’t confront it with a responsive screen trying to sell you things you don’t need. On a train with only a paperback of Paradise Lost, you are forced into either an attempt at understanding and enjoyment or else an uninterrupted stare out your window. Your Kindle Fire is so named because Amazon understands that we Americans rather enjoy the hot oppression of endless choices, the arson of our calm. At the first signs of Milton’s difficulty, you can nix the whole excursion and romp around with a clattering of apps.

Let me pre-empt certain mumbles by saying that I can recognize the value of electronic reading and would not wish it away. The e-reader is a godsend to those travelers who want to carry all eight volumes of Gibbon with them. (Although you can question if a traveler would really make use of Gibbon’s dreadnought while traipsing through foreign climes. Aldous Huxley has a funny essay called “Books for the Journey” in which he writes: “Thick tomes have traveled with me for thousands of kilometers across the face of Europe and have returned with their secrets unviolated.”) E-books have aided an infirm publishing industry while offering an inexpensive option to those who would never spend $35 on a hardback. The e-reader is also sometimes the only way to have a book if you don’t live near a library and if the postal carrier has trouble reaching your wilderness grot.

At my alma mater recently I gave a lecture on the importance of literature in this digital age, and I might have half-earnestly referred to the Internet as an insane asylum where the misanthropic and lonesome go to die, because afterward a 90-year-old woman three-pronged her way to the podium to give me a deserved lashing. Without the Internet, she said, without e-books blaring forth from an illuminated screen, she wouldn’t be able to read at all, such was the condition of her eyesight after 85 years of reading. How does the cyberskeptic counter that? He doesn’t.

You can easily locate the science that says we read more comprehensively when we read on paper, the neurological data that shows how our memories are motivated, soldered by the tactile, how we learn most fruitfully when our senses are stroked, but those are not what truly vex the bibliophile. The point, like so many literary points worth emphasizing, is an aesthetic one—books are beautiful. What you hear in the above anxiety by James Salter is not really a condemnation of e-readers, but an anxiety about a loss of beauty. Robertson Davies got it right when he wrote this about beautiful editions of good books: “We value beauty and we value associations, and I do not think we should be sneered at because we like our heroes to be appropriately dressed.” Gissing’s narrator in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft admits: “The joy of reading the Decline and Fall in that fine type! The page was appropriate to the dignity of the subject; the mere sight of it tuned one’s mind.” The dignity of the subject—remember that formulation, and savor the excellence of that last metaphor, one’s mind tuned by the fine type of such sweet pages.

I feel for Salter’s anxiety, and I agree with Burgess when he wrote, commenting on those delectable editions produced by The Folio Society in London: “We have to relearn pride in books as objects lovely in themselves.” But allow me to assure you of this truth: Like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard. The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book. There are innumerable readers for whom the collecting of physical books will remain forever essential to our selfhoods, to our savoring of pleasure and attempted acquisition of wisdom, to our emotional links with our past and our psychological apprehension of others—essential not just as extensions of our identities but as embodiments of those identities. Books, like love, make life worth living.

  1. I can’t help noticing that “exultation” is the term marshaled by Leigh Hunt in his 1823 bibliophilic essay “My Books,” and also by Somerset Maugham in his novel The Razor’s Edge, when he writes of one character’s leisure with a copy of Spinoza.
  2. Eugene Goodheart wrote this in his memoir Confessions of a Secular Jew: “My personal library is an accumulation rather than a collection, which means I never quite know where a book I need is. I begin looking for a book I had misplaced, but to no avail. Another book catches my eye. … I pick it up and peruse it”—and that’s called serendipity. The same rewarding surprise can happen when you grab the big red copy of your Merriam Webster’s instead of seeking your definition online, just as you can discover the gem you didn’t know you needed every time you choose a brick-and-mortar bookshop over Amazon.
  3. It’s not hard to nod along with Leigh Hunt when he admits: “I love an author the more for having been himself a lover of books.” It’s really the rudimentary qualification every reader should demand of a writer.
  4. For weeks after that flood I walked around with a hole in my chest. I’d welcome a hack with a scalpel if only it were possible to excise that memory. I made a list of the deceased copies and vowed to replace every last one, a vow I’m still fulfilling.
  5. Before the officer left that day, I told him to choose a book from my shelf, my gift to him for his interest and his kindness toward me, and he chose a paperback copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther, pronouncing Goethe’s name “goeth,” as in “the sun goeth down.” For two decades I’ve wondered what this officer of the peace thought of the novel that in the late eighteenth century sent a shockwave of suicides across Deutschland.
  6. France also has this to say to those negligent readers who don’t esteem physical books as works of art: “You have no fire and no joy, and you will never know the delight of passing trembling fingers over the delicious grain of a morocco-bound volume.”
  7. You see, then, what Anatole Broyard means when he dubs the personal library “an ancestral portrait”—this is exactly what Borges and Sartre were getting at.
  8. Here’s Susan Sontag, in her novel The Volcano Lover, writing about art, but any bibliophile will feel a tremor of recognition: “A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites. Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much. The collector’s need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion. It’s too much—and it’s just enough for me. … A collection is always more than is necessary.”
  9. I’m reminded that the human lifespan is also part of Harold Bloom’s argument for why one should read only the best books. There’s not time enough for junk. Paradise Lost alone takes half a lifetime of rereading to understand fully. This is what Nabokov means by: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”