Winston Churchill, an avid bibliophile and writer, as well as statesman, once said,
“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”
The other day, I wrote a post titled Close the Libraries? and was surprised by the number of comments I received not only about the importance of libraries as physical places in our communities where we encounter not only books but each other. I also received several comments about what I would call the “physicality of real books.” Readers of the blog posted about how they enjoyed the sight, feel, and even the smell of their books. Some talked about children and picture books and curling up on a parents lap to share a good book together.
Research has shown that having books in the home enhances childhood literacy. C.S. Lewis grew up in a home filled with books that nurtured his love of reading. As I child, I remember exploring the shelves of books in our living room, basement, and way back in the closet in my bedroom. Sometimes, it was fun just to look at the dust jackets and sometimes to delve into books to learn about basic mechanics, science, or just to see what my mom liked to read. I wonder if there had been a tablet or e-reader sitting on the table if I would have had the same experience and same delight in exploration.
I have old paperbacks like Bonhoeffer’s Life Together that I’ve read and re-read over the years. The pages have turned brownish yellow and some fall out as the inexpensive binding has become brittle. But these books chronicle my life in the margin notes as my understanding and interaction with the ideas of the authors have changed and grown. I treat these aging old friends with tenderness rather than just replace them with new editions or digital copies. Perhaps for the same reason, I like to listen to old LPs and CDs not only for the richness of the music but the connection to the time and place that I bought them, and in some cases the times where I’ve been a part of a performance of this music.
I have a collection of Balzac novels that I received from my mother. Inside the front cover, I find my grandfather Scott’s signature. The books were published in 1923 and my mother spoke of how she used to love to read this as a young girl. In holding these books, I leaf through pages pored over by my grandfather and mother. I have Bibles owned by both of my grandmothers and the passages they underlined and the notes they scrawled connect me to the values that have formed our family.
I don’t think my son and daughter-in-law would appreciate getting all my books! But I wonder if there is some value in thinking about what are the books that have most defined us and that we don’t want subject to the ephemeral nature of digital media. Maybe our children are the best to answer this. There may be others we keep as our “old friends” whose look, feel, and even smell we enjoy until the time comes when we are beyond these pleasures. And there are the books I discard, and some that I do acquire electronically because they have served their purpose once I’ve read them–whether for information or enjoyment or both. Perhaps a blessing of this age is that we can enjoy both the best of print books and the best of e-resources. Must we settle for the either-or zero sum thinking that says we must choose a smaller, less richly textured world? I hope not.