Tonight is World Book Night, the night of the year when half a million books are given away for free on the streets of the UK, and more in the USA and Ireland (OK, not exactly global yet, but they’ll get there!).
I will be out giving copies of The Eyre Affair – a very funny novel about literature in an alternate version of 1985 – to unsuspecting passers by in my part of town.
I was a book-giver-outerer (my term, not theirs) last year, too. It was great fun to be able to give the gift of literature and put a smile in someone’s life.
And this year it also gives me the excuse to wax lyrical about the joy of real books over the clinical convenience of the eReader. Bonus.
I love real books. I’m a Luddite about technology at the best of times anyway, but it seems to me that to present a great work of literature as a bunch of pixels of light on a screen is to rob it of at least two of its component parts.
Firstly, there is the physicality of a book. Reading is at least as much about the process of browsing a shelf, selecting an appealing-looking tome, weighing it in the hand, feeling its cover, smelling its scent, thumbing through the pages and finally progressing from one cover down through the stack of pages to the middle, then up the crest of the hill to the end. The satisfaction of turning the last page and closing the cover of a really good book can surely not be matched by making one more click and finding the book gone, snatched into the past without a trace.
On an eReader every book looks and feels the same. There is no artistry, no choices of cover design (matte, gloss or silk? Smooth or embossed? Photo or drawn artwork?), none of the clues that we instinctively take in that hint at what’s in store. It’s like a gift that the giver couldn’t be bothered to wrap or, worse, that they shoved in a supermarket carrier bag with half a dozen other things you already owned.
On a purely practical note, too, when trying to remember something I’ve read to share the thought with others, I can often remember roughly where on the page it was, which side it was on, and even a vague sense of whether it was near the front, middle or back of the book. With electronic text, that just isn’t possible – and I understand that flicking backwards and forwards through the pages isn’t easy on the current models anyway. Another serious disadvantage.
Secondly, though, and perhaps more significantly, real books are community objects in a way that books in an eReader can’t be.
When you buy a book new, even if you order it online, you have some basic interaction with the person who sells it to you, the cover then tells you the author’s name and the publisher’s name, and the first few pages list the names of others whose collaboration has made this object possible.
And what if, as I prefer to do when I can, you buy a book second hand or borrow it from a friend? Then you start to interact with those who have owned it before you – you can read their margin notes, see which bits they loved enough to highlight, or hated enough to exclaim over. You can mark their progress by the telltale creases of folded down corners, and tell whether they read it while smoking a pipe, soaking in the bath or eating chocolate (or possibly all three!).
Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road – my absolute all time, hands down favourite book, which I read every year and of which I buy every secondhand copy I see so I always have one to give away – agrees. In a letter to the bookshop from which she orders all her books, she says:
I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day [Selected Writings by William] Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.
I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.
On top of which, it’s so much fun to go to someone’s house and browse their bookshelves – seeing all their books in a sweep gives you so many clues as to who they are, and so many potential triggers for conversation, that simply won’t be available once books have become extinct.
On World Book Night I shall be giving out real books, not links to download some text onto yet another screen. I shall place a physical object, inscribed with my name, into the hands of a stranger. They will read it or reject it, pass it on or abandon it, dogear the corners, doodle in the margins, or wedge its pages in a sash window to stop the rattle (yes, I saw that done in a house recently!). Whatever they do with it, the book will in some way touch their life. I hope they’ll love it and will share it with someone else and so the cycle will go on. And maybe one day, browsing in a bookshop, I shall find a copy, buy it, pass it on, and start the cycle again.
Books are physical and they are communal, in a way that their electronic counterparts can never be, and for these and possibly many more reasons, they bring a joy that their electronic counterparts can never bring. Don’t you agree?