Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Throwing The Book At 'Em

Well, Blogger is misbehaving today and won't let me put this photo where I want it. So please bear with me. I already wrote the text and there is a particular place I wanted to put the photo, but all for naught. Furthermore, all the line spacing is weird, and I can't seem to do anything about that, either. It's doubling, tripling, or doing nothing randomly. My apologies.

I've had the most curious "argument" with family members lately. The argument makes no sense, because it is about a completely subjective, personal preference. I keep being told my preference is WRONG. If I know perfectly well what I prefer, how can I be wrong? It's my taste, my opinion, it makes sense to me, and I'm sticking with it. FOREVER.
The problem is, I maintain that I love physical books. LOVE THEM. Always have, always will. Especially vintage or antiquarian books. Despite my best efforts at teaching my kids to use books, however, they have steadfastly resisted the book adoration. In our common room, on a desk conveniently positioned next to their computer, I set up a reference book area. Who uses it? Exclusively ME, for my editing work. The boys would always rather eat a bag of nails than do the taxing, tedious work of cracking a dictionary or The Chicago Manual of Style or The MLA Handbook or Roget's Thesaurus or Garner's Modern American Usage. Even their foreign language dictionaries languish. You'd think their very arms would fall off if they lifted one. It annoys them to no end that when they ask me a reference question I can always find the answer in a book anywhere in the house faster than they can Google it, or, more's the pity, than they can refer to that second-rate hodgepodge of misinformation or missing information, Wikipedia. Why can't they just type it in and get an easy, canned answer and not endure the pleasure of actual thought and discovery?
Several worries assail me. First, their growing up in an age of not valuing books retards their skills. Even if they know how to spell a word, they will not use the proper process to look it up. This freaks me out. How could you be "taught" how to look things up in a dictionary since you were four years old and STILL not be able to demonstrate it at age 12? And, an aside--it scares the heck out of me whenever I enter homes (kids' friends' homes, relatives' homes) wherein there is no evidence of books. No bookcases anywhere. How can people live like that?

I learned to read when I was three. You'll see me practicing for this momentous event in the photo.

What I find funny about this picture is that I'm holding Mother Goose upside down. And that is how I first learned to read--upside down and backwards. I remember sitting across the little built-in kitchen table from my mom when she was reading the morning newspaper (in our house at the time, it was The Los Angeles Times). And I started reading the big headlines. I read them upside down and right-to left, but I'm a lefty, so that makes some sense. I remember saying, "Mommy, what is a Budd-hist?" She was kind of shocked.

A book is a wonderful thing to take to bed, to while away your time while waiting for a kid's activity, to take to an indulgent breakfast alone, even sometimes to a soak in the tub. These kids are almost devoid of these experiences. Volunteering to use books in any of those ways would not occur to them, and that's what makes me sad. They don't think of books as their forever companions. Now, we have always, always made it a point to read to them almost ad nauseam and they are required to read before bed every night. So they do know about reading in bed, but they don't go happily rushing into it without reminders. We have demonstrated the example all their lives. Somehow the deep cultivation has not set genuine roots.

And then there's the "argument" about electronic readers such as the Kindle. I am unanimously overruled by family on this subject. I do not want to use an electronic reader. Just because the technology happens to exist, must I be obliged to use it? I say a resounding "No!" I want the comforting aesthetic experience of creamy paper, deckle or gilded edges, leather or cloth covers and real dust jackets with author bios on them. More than often it's a paperback, but I don't care. I don't care if a book is heavy or if I have to shine a light on it. I don't want a book that shines at me in a nondescript neutral font. I want to examine colophons and end papers such as those in the Everyman's Library series ("Everyman, I will go with thee/& be thy guide/in thy most need to be by thy side"). I want to keep finding the endearing back pages that say something like, "This book is set in 12-point Monotone Bimbo, with chapter headings in Basketball Overextended, both faces designed by the legendary Adolf Pfupfl and characterized by noble, full-bodied proportions with complex, slightly fruity serifs."

Most important to me is the fact that I can riffle through the pages at will instead of having to scroll. My mind remembers pages in a photographic way; I can almost always remember whether a particular passage was verso or recto, and how far down the page it was. I love the visceral experience of flipping back and forth and always finding what I'm looking for. On a continuous scroll device, I won't find it, and will just want to throw the thing. (Trust me; I know I would!) If the device were able to project on the wall or ceiling and I were in the bath, it might have some merit. But otherwise, no.
So maybe it's cool that you can carry a whole library with you at one time. I won't argue that point. But I don't feel a genuine need for that, either. It might have been useful, though, when I was in college and grad school and running feverishly from place to place. Or, maybe if you can bookmark it, useful for teaching notable passages in class. But, still. You can do that by bringing a book to class with relevant pages flagged. However, you can't hook it up to a projector. So maybe in this sense I'm losing the fight.

Yes, books have a way of causing an irritating level of clutter. I admit to having them everywhere, and they require dusting or vacuuming, and they're always migrating from one case to another. I no sooner get them all organized where they fit than I have to go through them and try to reorganize. I'm always making wrenching decisions about which books I must purge in order to take on new ones. I always have one or two discard bags going. I have piles all over the place. Right now, on the end table, I'm delving late at night into: an ancient copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840; Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a re-dip--read it when it first came out); an absolutely tattered two-generation paperback of Great Expectations; two volumes of excellent poetry by Kay Ryan; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; and the short-story collection Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver (another long-term re-dip).

I'm heartened when I see my book piles. Seeing them directly as physical objects, I feel as though I'm looking at friends. They are me in some way. As a kid, I used to climb trees with a book and sit up there all afternoon while spying on the neighborhood. Serendipity! In sixth or seventh grade I read The Hobbit in a tree. After that, most of Ian Fleming's James Bond series (you know, light summer reading). I don't want to take an expensive electronic reader up a tree or into the bathtub where an innocent fumble could electrocute me. If you drop a book from a tree, it will probably be just fine and won't explode or get a cracked screen. And you can dry out a book.

So flog me. I love books!


At 9/08/2009 8:47 PM, Blogger Nance said...

Oh, I am so with you entirely! I won't ever, EVER have an electronic reading thingy. I abhor even the IDEA. I only read hardback books. I like the gravitas of them; I like the idea that they cost more and that I really think about it when I buy them. I reread books compulsively. I even reread Gone with the Wind every June. I get to some pages and don't even have to look at more than a few words: I know practically the whole chapter by heart. It's like the part in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout's teacher tells her she mustn't read anymore and she realizes that she didn't know she needed to read and would dearly miss it. I think the quote is "One does not love breathing." Oh, exactly. EXACTLY. Don't ever try to take away my books. Ever.


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