My inspiration to write this post came from LeVar Burton’s incredible Kickstarter campaign to bring back “Reading Rainbow”. The fact that the campaign raised over $1 million in less than 24 hours is a powerful testament to how important the show was, and, more importantly, the power of books. Although reading is on the decline, and there are very real advantages to digital books, I believe that dead-tree books occupy an irreplaceable role in our lives.
Last week, in a fit of procrastination, I cataloged and alphabetized all of the books on my bookshelf. After 4 moves in 5 years, I’m down to a measly 39; in a previous life, I had a whole wall of books. If you’d like to peruse my virtual bookshelf, have fun.
As I was cataloging the books, though, the medium’s importance began to hit me. Each book brought back memories. For instance, Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Return From Hot Climates was recommended to me at the perfect moment, as I was going through my college/adolescence-crisis-of-faith phase. Mr. Robbins’ canon was instrumental in supporting me through that journey. Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines was given to me by a great college professor, and was the first book that made me think about linguistics, essentially shaping the trajectory of my life.
Physical books are coated in memories, in a way I doubt digital books will ever be. It isn’t just about which pages we dog-eared, and what marginalia we recorded, but rather, a much more visceral connection. My most poignant book memory came from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I read it when I was losing my hearing, when my world was being torn apart. The ending struck me deeply, and it was the first book that ever made me cry. A few months later, my grandfather died, and my grandmother let me have any books I wanted from his bookshelf. Among his long wall of books, I discovered a 1st Edition copy of East of Eden. It was a beautiful moment, when I felt the book connecting us through time.
None of this is to say that digitization is anything short of miraculous. My Kindle goes everywhere with me, and I would sooner give up my smartphone than give up my Kindle. Rather, books are a medium we can never wholly convert to bits and bytes, 1s and 0s. If we only focus on a book’s text, we’ll lose a critical link in our society: A book can sometimes be more than a book, and I never want to digitize that.