Bound by words

The dig­i­tal age may be sweep­ing us but the age­ing, un­wieldy phys­i­cal book isn’t about to be put away just yet,

New Straits Times - - Pulse - writes Elena Koshy

Books are com­pendi­ums of magic that not only cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion but also hold within their cov­ers, mem­o­ries of our own im­print on their pages.

IKNOW what’s go­ing to be writ­ten on my obit­u­ary. “Buried un­der piles of books and only found six months later.”

Mor­bid as it sounds, it’s re­ally a great way to go, as far as I’m con­cerned. Conked on the head by a fall­ing the­saurus? Crushed by a book­shelf loaded with favourite books? Passed on while curled up in my arm­chair with a book wide open on my lap?

Yes, please!

My love af­fair with books be­gan when I was old enough to read. From Enid Bly­ton to Laura In­galls, Rud­yard Ki­pling to C.S. Lewis, I’ve read them all and lived their sto­ries over and over again. Those do­geared books were my clos­est com­pan­ions, whom I turned to when­ever I was lonely or bored. Books were my friends. They still are. They al­low me to live a thou­sand lives and dream a hun­dred dreams.

And with In­ter­na­tional Book Lover’s Day just days away, this is an ode to books and the won­der­ful com­pan­ions they make.

Long be­fore I got around to get­ting a book­shelf for my room, piles and piles of books sur­rounded me. Ev­ery space in my room got taken up by books, and more books. Death by a tot­ter­ing pile of books was a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity — as my mother made very clear to me, de­spair­ing of my book-ob­ses­sion and fail­ing yet again to stop me from bring­ing home YET an­other book. My dog-eared and stained Lord Of The

Rings sits proudly on my shelf, along with my child­hood col­lec­tion of Bly­ton’s Fa­mous

Five. Lit­er­ary clas­sics, best­sellers, lurid ro­mances, fairy tales, nat­u­ral his­tory, mem­oirs, po­etry, the yawn­ers, the scorchers, the ones that keep you awake at nights, the ones that put you to sleep be­fore you reach page five, spine-tin­gling hor­ror, oc­cult, holy books — I have them all. And no, I don’t throw any book away.


The smell of pa­per, the beau­ti­fully de­signed cover hid­ing a world of se­crets be­neath it, the turn­ing of the page (the rustling of pa­per as you flip through a book is an oddly sat­is­fy­ing sound) — books have an un­de­ni­ably fetishis­tic qual­ity that book lovers find un­able to re­sist.

The scent of aged pa­per is some­thing that lingers on our ol­fac­tory sense when­ever we open a book. What’s more, it’s a sci­en­tif­i­cally proven fact and one that an ar­ti­cle called Ma­te­rial De­gradomics: On The

Smell Of Old Books at­tests to, stat­ing that re­searchers at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don used “headspace anal­y­sis” to mea­sure the volatile com­pounds pro­duced when pa­per de­cays: among oth­ers, rosin, acetic acid, fur­fural and lignin.

Mean­while, per­fume critic Luca Turin ex­plains that it’s the lat­ter that makes books smell so good: “When made into pa­per and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how di­vine prov­i­dence has ar­ranged for sec­ond­hand book­stores to smell like good-qual­ity vanilla ab­so­lute, sub­lim­i­nally stok­ing a hunger for knowl­edge in all of us.”

In an opin­ion piece in Wall Street Jour­nal, author Joe Queenan de­clares that for book lovers, the print medium has got no com­pe­ti­tion. He wrote: “Peo­ple who need to pos­sess the phys­i­cal copy of a book, not merely an elec­tronic ver­sion, be­lieve that the ob­jects them­selves are sa­cred. Some peo­ple may find this at­ti­tude baf­fling, ar­gu­ing that books are merely ob­jects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sis­tine Chapel.”

The en­tire read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is

en­cap­su­lated be­tween the cov­ers of a book with magic in­grained in its spine and the thoughts, love and imag­i­na­tion of peo­ple drenched in the etch­ings on the pages. Books are com­pendi­ums of magic that not only cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion but also hold within their cov­ers, mem­o­ries of our own im­print on their pages. Like the child­hood scrawl­ing of our names, the lit­tle notes we write on the mar­gins and the un­der­lined words, they speak of our own jour­ney while we read. They don’t just tell sto­ries of authors. They tell our sto­ries too.

The books on my groan­ing book­shelves and those stacked in dod­der­ing piles through­out the house tell of my own per­sonal story. They chron­i­cle my his­tory as a reader and, to dis­cern­ing bib­lio­philes, of­fer a glimpse into my very soul.


Then came the dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing revo­lu­tion and along with it, the ro­man­tic old­fash­ioned way of bury­ing your nose in a book found it­self com­pet­ing with the back­light­ing, font-chang­ing, space-hold­ing lit­tle tablets that could mag­i­cally con­tain more books than my over­stuffed book­shelf ever could.

The rise of apps and gad­gets, which has led to the ex­tinc­tion of many on­ceindis­pens­able and nos­tal­gic ac­tiv­i­ties and ser­vices of our child­hood, in­clud­ing postal ser­vice, tele­grams and even ac­tual con­ver­sa­tions, is now threat­en­ing the phys­i­cal book land­scape. Bar­ring the nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to change by die-hard book lovers, it can’t be de­nied that the read­ing land­scape has changed thanks to the de­vel­op­ment of e-read­ers in re­cent years, ren­der­ing dig­i­tal books a whole lot more com­pet­i­tive than the con­ven­tional pa­per-based ones.

How­ever, is print los­ing the war against pix­els just yet? Sur­pris­ingly, rather than bury­ing the print pub­lish­ing in­dus­try (as was once pre­dicted), e-books have re­mained fairly un­threat­en­ing. Per­haps read­ers are slowly be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that the ex­pe­ri­ence from read­ing off a vast grey ocean of pix­els dif­fers greatly from the in­ti­mate in­ter­ac­tion you get with a phys­i­cal book. Its heft, its scent, the tac­tile qual­ity of its cover, the give of the bind­ing — isn’t a mi­rage that no one else can per­ceive.

Per­haps they’re re­al­is­ing that read­ing off a screen isn’t as far up the evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der as com­pared to a book. What­ever the rea­sons may be, while the war is far from over, phys­i­cal books will not go away with­out a fight. For as long as there are read­ers, lovers of the writ­ten word and book fetishists around, phys­i­cal books — as un­wieldy and space hoard­ing as they are — will sur­vive. And “Death By Book” will al­ways re­main a happy pos­si­bil­ity for me.

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