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Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Is It About Books?

What Is it About Books?

It was a dark and stormy night. Wind gusted wildly and lashed the house and roof with rain that sounded like pea gravel shot from a cannon. Small branches and limbs broke from the fir and oak trees around the house and littered the deck and yard with dark, half-seen lumps that could have been bodies or clumps of animated primeval sludge. OK, that’s going a bit far. But it was very dark, very stormy, very wet, and Gary was out of town.

I had planned to do some work in the studio while he was away, but the weather and atmosphere made me seek refuge. What better way to spend such an evening than in a room full of books, nestled into my recliner in a circle of light, cat on my lap and hot drink at my elbow?

Utterly evocative, but full of the pain
of lost libraries and disappeared books .
Even better, the book I was reading was Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, with a cover illustration of a dark woods and a man in a chair reading a book by lamplight.

But the question in my mind is, what is it about books that is so comforting to some of us? I’m not talking so much about reading – one can read in many types of media. As Manguel reveals in another title - A History of Reading - the methods, entitlements, and habits of reading have changed greatly over the course of written history. The outcry about the “loss of books” to electronic media is misplaced. Electronic media provide reading: printed ink-on-paper books provide a mystique in their sheer physical presence that is not transmitted to cold plastic.

How to explain the feeling you get in a bookshop or a library - public or private - where you are surrounded by printed volumes, of there being something special there for you and you alone? Something waiting for you to find it, or to find you by serendipity. The feeling that makes you say “ahhhhh” when you step into the presence of a room filled with books.
A wonderful book, full of surprises. 

To be sure, there are those who don’t experience this; even those who appear to despise books. I have seen many decorating and interior design books, television shows, and even magazine articles where interior designers can’t bear the thought of colorful spines and dust jackets cluttering up their theme or color scheme. Some go to ridiculous lengths to disguise books, if they must remain in the room. They’ll cover them with plain white wrappers (or worse, paint them!), or place them on the shelves by color and size, or remove the dust jackets to display more uniformly plain spines, or – worst of all – display the books fore-edge out . Lacking the chance to do any of that, they’ll imprison the books behind doors.  It’s an aesthetic, but to booklovers a very wrong-headed and egotistical one.

The people who put themselves into the hands of these designers claim that they want a “warm and inviting” atmosphere. Laying claim to a room in which a gigantic flat-screen television becomes a focal point, they seem happy with the result. One (who loves books) can only wonder how this is possible.

To those of us for whom books are among life’s greatest pleasures, those many-hued dust jacket spines on our own shelves are like the faces of old familiar friends. One glance at such a book and one is reminded of previous pleasures, or taken back to a moment in time fondly remembered, or convinced that there is something more to be learned between those covers. The emotions of previous encounters enter one again, even without touching the book.

Bookshelves in a home speak volumes (literally) about the owner. Entering a home with books for the first time, one gravitates automatically to the shelves, scanning the spines for titles unfamiliar and familiar, deducing mutual or unexpected interests from them.  A home without books seems shallow and cold, lacking somehow in personality.

Those of us with books under our skin cannot imagine a time when electronic versions will suffice. They offer cold comfort at best. The image of sitting alone on a stormy night with the glow of an electronic screen for companionship simply does not convey the sense of safety and warmth as does the alternative picture I painted in my initial paragraphs. Will there be a time when it is enough? Not for me.


Barbara Radisavljevic said...

You have said well what so many of us feel. I think books are one of the most interesting parts of a room's decor. I can't imagine even a room without them -- let alone a home.

When I enter someone else's home, the first place I look (without being too obvious) is the bookshelf. I learn more about a person through her bookcase contents than I might in a conversation. The books I see are often a good conversation starters.

Amy said...

Your blog entry says it all and so nicely. I feel inspired to get my bookcases stained and varnished so we can unpack the 58 boxes waiting to be displayed, dust jackets and all, in our new home library. Here's to