Illustration of “The Future Express”, the frontispiece from a 1911 collection of Jules Verne stories I own.
My love affair with books began before I could read, continued as I devoured almost every book in my small town’s library, but then started to wane in my first university years. I hated being told what I must read, especially if it was dull. The Internet, work, and socializing took away from my reading time as the years went by, but I still always had a book or two or three in progress. I’ve married two bibliophiles along the way, too. My current husband and I were sure we were a great fit as we unpacked the books we wanted close at hand on our shelves, and several times had to decide whether to keep his edition or mine of the same work.
I think the last time I bought a paper book was when I wanted hospital reading material in 2010. I own a Kindle now, which has so many advantages. I can read in bed with the lights out. If I finish one book in the middle of a flight, I have dozens more at my fingertips. A new book is just a quick Internet transaction away. There’s a built-in dictionary for the times I read a non-fiction or historical book with lots of obscure words. Nobody around me can look at the cover of my book and judge me based on what I’m reading (for better or worse).
To be honest, I don’t read as much as I used to. There’s another effect of having a Kindle: it’s very easy to close the file if I’m not interested enough to continue, and I’m not taunted by the hundreds of pages that remain after my dog-ear. (Yes, I dog-ear pages of books I own, much to my husband’s horror. I sometimes write in them, too.) I read the books on the short list for the Man Booker Prize almost every year — it’s the one literary prize I covet — but I cannot get through The Luminaries to save my life. It’s like eating dry cake. Sometimes it’s delicious and I want to nibble a bit more, but it sticks in my throat. If I had the 864 page paperback looming on my nightstand, I might feel obligated to pick it up again, but now it’s easy to spin my Kindle carousel past it and choose something else.
Today I raided my physical shelves looking for older books that might have interesting illustrations and I was overcome with nostalgia. It was like seeing a photo of a long-lost love and momentarily being swept away by longing for what could have been, and then remembering the reasons it didn’t work and never would have. My books overflowed so many shelves that I lost dozens and dozens of them in a basement flood. Every time I moved homes, the small dense boxes of books filled grown men with dread. My hand used to ache from holding open a thick book one-handed as I tried to multitask. I love you, my paper darlings, but we couldn’t keep going the way we were.
I miss digging through old books looking for something to catch my eye. My mom and I used to go garage sale-ing every weekend in summer; she would paw through the paperback mysteries and popular fiction while I’d be shoulder-deep in any pile of musty old hardcover books I could find. If I knew the book’s title or author in some corner of my trivia-loving brain, I’d grab it. On my shelf I still see Bronte, Joyce, Hemingway, Bunyan, Kipling, Ovid, Conrad, Poe, Conan Doyle, and more from those excursions. I was an odd child.
Over the years, I also collected books that struck me as being historically significant, like these:
The book on the left is a German/Russian picture dictionary published in East Germany in 1953, just before Stalin’s death. Each page is a masterpiece of propaganda. An image of a college physics classroom has the slogan, “Mit Hammer und Sichel – Mit Buch und Gewehr” (“With hammer and sickle, with book and rifle”) written on the wall. Some students in playground illustrations wear Young Pioneers uniforms (there’s a whole section about the socialist party, identifying insignia, what a party meeting looks like at national and local levels, etc). There are extremely detailed vocabulary sections for many trades, from butcher to machinist to hair dresser. My favorite, having spent May 1st of this year in Kreuzberg, is this illustration that accompanies the vocab section, “Demonstration”:
The Vietnamese phrase book is fascinating to me as well. When it was published, the American role in Vietnam was still, officially, limited to providing advisers. The first page clearly lists the distribution for 10,000 copies: 8,000 to the US Army in the Pacific; 1,950 to the continental US Army, and the remaining 50 to various ops, logistics, and personnel offices. While most of the phrases focus on intelligence and operational matters, some are a bit sketchy for advisers, such as “We have arms better than those of the enemy, and we will receive more as we need them” or “We are here to help them in the struggle on the side of (1) the free world (2) the U. S. (3) the Allies (4) freedom (5) God.” Good to know that they were equipped to be flexible with the rationale for why the hell we were in Vietnam, eh?
I love this stuff. It’s just not the same to read a historic document online. Paper books are artifacts in and of themselves. I wonder which of the 10,000 copies of the Vietnamese phrase book I own. It doesn’t look like it was used, so perhaps it’s one of the 25 copies that went to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, rather than being sent to Asia. I wonder how the East German book ended up in a place where I found it. Sometimes, thanks to the Internet, I can discover a little more about a book’s history. Around 1990 I found this in a used book store in Buffalo, NY:
The book was 100 years old that year and in awful condition. Though I only picked it up because of my interest in folktales from around the world, it amused me that the original owner had written his name and address inside and his name was almost the same as a famous scientist. Until today I never bothered Googling him, but once I did, I found that he was a photographer and editor for the US Geological Survey, that his wife was a national officer in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and that they lived in a historic home in Washington, DC that was built in 1846. Now I wonder why he had this book, how his eccentric interests overlapped with mine, and how the book got from DC to Buffalo in the 100 years before I owned it.
Those are all things we lose with ebooks. Maybe they’re merely sentiment or best left to researchers and historians. I don’t know. But, right now, I’m going to brush the dust off my husband’s copy of the Bloom County Complete Library, Volume One, sit down, and enjoy flipping through the pages. I’m glad that Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County 2015, but this is a better way to experience the strips than seeing them in my Facebook feed.