The digital revolution has come close to destroying one of my favourite reading haunts – the leave-one/take-one shelf in local coffee shops, small hotels and hostels. For years I’d leave home with one or two books, enough material to get me to my first stop. Then I’d swap them for something someone else had left. It expanded my tastes and knowledge considerably.
Now that more and more people are using digital readers it’s hard to find many books of any sort, much less to my taste, on the shelves. Believe me, I understand the travelers’ desire to pack light. No matter how far I’m going or how long I’ll be gone, I still refuse to carry anything that won’t fit in the overhead. But I still like the feel of paper, the ability to dog-ear and easily go back a few pages, and the freedom from needing a charger or dealing with glare. No worries about damage at the beach, in the woods or from spilled coffee, either.
For me, one of life’s pleasures is standing in front of a bookshelf, scanning covers and thumbing through candidates for my own shelf. It’s a tactile sensation and emotional satisfaction you don’t really get scrolling down a screen. Over the years I’ve purchased – and enjoyed – countless books that jumped off shelves at me. Their authors and topics hadn’t been in my consciousness and they’d have been invisible scanning a mail order screen. But I’m glad they entered my life. I don’t know how successful I was, but in my teaching days I tried to force a library experience on my students, most of whom were STEM students taking required liberal arts courses. I knew that if they had even a miniscule amount of curiosity [or boredom with the assignment] they’d discover things in the stacks they’d never find online. A book title, unique binding or cover, or something else catches your eye further down the shelf or on one of the shelves you’re scanning while you’re looking for your target book by number. It’s the same as browsing in a bookstore, a strange planet that few of them had ever ventured to. If you’re old enough, you may remember the Sydney Harris newspaper column, “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things.”
I’ve heard – and accept – many of the arguments in favour of e-readers. But since these days most of my reading is for pleasure, part of my pleasure comes from the tactile experience of dealing with ink on paper. And if you’re reading for work, you might want to take a look at the stats comparing the amount of information people retain after reading from paper vs. screens. [And since my bias is already obvious, you already know the answer. The studies will just give you the decimal points.]
Oh, and then there’s the community-building role of bound books. Those same cover designs that promote sales to readers also promote comments and conversation among neighbours at your beach, lake, plane or other conveyance. [Do you remember stories – and maybe even the experience – of “fake” covers on books to conceal the trash you loved with the image of a classic?] An e-reader hides your trashy tastes from others.
Years ago I remember browsing through a community exchange corner in Telluride. It was a combined recycling centre, charity shop and bookstore that made a lot of sense. You’d meet and chat with people and wind up helping each other bring oversize stuff to each other’s homes. At the time I thought it made perfect sense for the small town at the foot of the ski slope – the place where locals lived year-round.
Since then I’ve seen and learned more about the little free library movement that’s spread across the globe. Essentially they’re oversized birdhouses or mailboxes in public places where people can share their books. There are over 75,000 of them in nearly 90 countries – and that’s just a count of the ones that have affiliated with a group. There are countless more that have sprung up around the world, even in abandoned red telephone boxes in the UK. As municipal resources shrink and public libraries run in to hard times, the success of these ad hoc distribution points shows us a sense of community and neighborliness. I can’t quite see someone leaving an e-reader in one of these boxes, even if there’s a note describing its contents taped to the cover.
While e-readers are good for helping us exercise our opposable thumbs, traditional books have long helped us develop other manual skills along with hand-eye coordination. Do you remember cutting up supermarket shopping bags to make brown paper covers to protect the school books that had to be returned at the end of the term? And can somebody answer a question for me, please. Can the e-readers being used in today’s schools take the beating that normal kids will give them? I’m guessing that the good news is that their contents can be updated inexpensively. But the bad news is that they may not be able to take a normal kid-type use and abuse. I’ll leave the issue of comparing learning from tablets vs. books to the research generated by companies selling the competing platforms to local schools.
Centuries from now, long after WordStar, Lotus WordPro, EasyWriter and their more recent cousins sit on broken and unreadable pieces of plastic, someone will stumble across a saddle-stitched bound copy of a bi-lingual book, with the same passage in two different languages on opposite pages. And maybe they’ll get an insight into a tiny part of today’s or yesterday’s culture.
That’s it for now. My computer just beeped at me to say it needs its periodic feeding of electricity. Like any other infant, its nutritional demands rule my household.
This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.