Monday, October 26, 2009


There's a reason why I never got around to travelling the world like most of my friends: there's too much to see between pages. With books you don't have to buy a souvenir of a good journey, because the book is the keepsake.

I love finding things worth remembering in texts while I read them, but I'm absolutely useless at remembering them, and where they were. I've tried a lot of things: over the years I've keep a book of quotes -- long lost now -- and I've written excerpts in diaries that are stashed in dark corners of cupboards, soon to be burned at my next drunken bonfire. I've even started index cards, in a box, but where is the box when you're reading a book under a tree? (Or in a bath, but you didn't see me type that.)

Then there are more radical physical interventions: writing notes in the margins is a common one, but rediscovering most of the notes I wrote as a high-school student has put me off that. Firstly, they were written in coloured pen that has bled and spread to make garishly sodden words, and secondly, they were completely inane. I'm worried that if I make marginalia -- in pencil, the most conservation-friendly implement yet invented -- they will one day be laughed at heartily the way BB and I laugh at one of his texts, Freud's Moses & Monotheism, where the reader wrote in the margin in tones of great scandal: Freud is NOT a Christian!!!!

I'm at the point now, and have been ever since I saw Charlie Sofo's Dog Ears book, where I generally dog-ear (i.e., fold a corner over) a page when I find something I want to remember, and leave the finding of the passage to myself again at a future point. If I really want to remember it, I'll re-write it, in my iphone, on a scrap of paper and stick it to the wall in front of me, or here on the blog, but if it's just a bit that jumps out at me, I'll dog-ear the page and put the book back on the shelf. I know that dog-ears damage the book, but I don't buy reading books for their value (and, actually, I don't dog-ear very valuable books, which aren't usually things I want to fondle/reread a lot) and I don't trust the long-term effects of acidic bookmarks or post-it notes. That having been said, I do leave a lot of ephemera through my books: gallery invitations, shopping lists, love letters, post-it notes... but these are usually accidental, like most ephemeral remainders.

Knowing that I dog-ear makes me browse my shelves again regularly. I'll cruise through a shelf, plucking out books, looking for the dog-ears. It works; I find myself whisked all sorts of places, and refreshes my outlook a bit.

I have a fundamental problem with audiobooks and ebooks: you can't dog-ear them. And others agree, especially India Ink, who puts a great case forward for the physical book and talks about

the near impossibility of thumbing back a few pages’ worth to find something I’d already read. Stanza offers much better wayfinding aids than Kindle, showing your relative position within each chapter (that thin two-tone line along the very bottom of the two Stanza screenshots), and not just within the whole book. But there was still no substitute for that visual aspect of reading, which lets one narrow down a search: “The sentence I’m half-remembering was on a verso page, about five lines from the top,” so you can then scan quickly backward, looking only at that part of each page spread, until you find it.

You can search an e-book, yes, and that’s a big selling point, but it’s not helpful when it’s just a dumb text search. Searching an e-book (assuming the software lets you—the Kindle app, as far as I can tell, does not) is not like searching with The Google, where putting in the wrong terms can still get you to the same place if enough other people have used those terms to link to the page. Nor is it like a good index, which cross-references guinea pig to cavy and back; if I search an e-book of The Three Musketeers for lackey I don’t get all mentions of Mousqueton or vice versa, whereas in a properly indexed edition of the book, I would.

Is this a deal-breaker? Obviously not, since blind people successfully read and retain information from books every day. And I certainly absorbed some information and enjoyment from these less-than-ideal reading experiences. If printed books—all of them—were to disappear today, replaced by electronic ones, I trust that I’d adjust. Somehow.

I trust that I would, too. But the point is, I don't want to have to adjust, and hopefully I'm of an age where I won't have to. But my son? Well, that will be his story to tell.


kazari said...

I listened to a talk once, about philosophy and beauty and important stuff like that. But the only thing I remember was the speaker talking about the beauty of books as objects, not just as repositories of stories. I was 16, and I'd never considered this before. He handed around a copy of Dante's Inferno (in Italian) in a limited edition print on the most beautiful paper. The paper still had rough edges, and there was so much white space around the text.
I read a lot online, and in magazines and newspapers. But I don't think I'll ever outlive the joy of finding a beautiful old book, or cracking open a beautiful new one.

India said...

I, too, have never been a big marginaliator, because I know too well that what strikes me as brilliant and insightful today often seems completely obvious a week from now—and vice versa. So I prefer either to mark the whole page or to copy out the specific passage.

I used to dogear, but my mother yelled at me when I did it to her hardcovers. In my own books, as a teenager, I would lightly pencil significant page numbers onto the front or back endpaper, in a hardcover, or the cover, in a paperback. Now I keep a digital commonplace book in the form of a subfolder within my digital journal. (I still keep a paper journal, as well, because it's better for curling up in bed with, but I write in the one that's on my laptop more, because my laptop is in my hands a lot more hours of the day.)

There's a wonderful chapter in this book that I had to read for a class (it was a photocopied handout, so I actually remember parts of it), which is about ways of saving what one reads: "Scissorizing and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth-Century Reading, Remaking, and Recirculating" by Ellen Gruber Garvey. Worth reading, even in the mutilated Google Books version.

India said...

Shoot, that second link didn't work. It should point to Sorry!

pk said...

Writing in books is EVIL. Have you ever got a book and found stuff written in it that wasn't breathtakingly banal and distracting?

Why would you want an index in a novel, ducks? That's just plain greedy.btw I think I may have one of your school books. Did you do Ted Hughes?

Cecilia said...

I love printed books for their beauty and own several old books, cloth-bound, gold-stamped, that I revere and just love to hold. These days, luckily, the Folio Society still prints gorgeous volumes like these.


Anna said...

There are so many aspects of reading a printed book that you miss on a computer. The weight, the feel and of course the smell.

Currently writing a short film screenplay about a book that doesn't smell. The main character gets really upset because he feels that each book has an individual smell and that he can't read a book if it's scentless.

I smell all the books I read, which is where I got the idea for the story.

I love the availability of the audio and ebook when I am in a situation where there is no other alternative (such as a dull day at work in front of a computer) but nothing can replace the physical experience of holding a book in my hands.