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,
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?
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.
LURE OF BOOKS
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.
ADVENT OF E-BOOKS
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.