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Oh baby, crease my spine

I know many people who love books. I know many many many people who love reading, and some of those people also love books. But not everyone who loves reading loves books in the way that the people who love books love books. Ya dig? I’m talking about the folks who’ll buy anything in a complete set provided the set has faux-leather with faux-gold leaf covers. Or the people who will replace their entire set of James Patterson because they’ve spotted a new release set with matching covers. Or the people who carefully cover their paperbacks in plastic to preserve them from the indignities of being handled, carried and read. I know this because I used to be one.

Books as objects as opposed to books as a means of experience is an interesting phenomenon, and one that I suspect is not confined to reading. (Consider, for example, the legendary worship of vinyl records or the stereotype of comic books preserved in Mylar bags.) I see it as a fetishisation of the object that permits the experience. Over time, the book object has attracted its own set of values beyond its role as the medium for an experience. Usually, there’s an overlap: the proud displayer is usually also a dedicated reader. But other motives worm their way in. I know people who have particular books because they think they should (the “everyone should have a copy of Winnie the Pooh/the Iliad/the Bible in their house” angle); and there are people who want everyone to know how many books they’ve read (the “trophy case” angle); and there are those who collect special books and first editions the way others collect action figures or antiques. None of these are wrong: it’s all about whatever turns your crank. But they do come down to displaying and celebrating the physical object, sometimes over the experience.

When I was at uni, I was totally stoked to score a hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice with faux-leather covers and lots (LOTS) of faux-gold leaf, including faux-gilt-edged pages: Pride and Prejudice gone pimp. Glossy watercolour illustrations and old-timey font face to hint at printing-press days of yore; man, what a find. Then I tried to read it in public. I reached into the cotton satchel slapping at my hip and took out this event of a book to read on the bus: it was embarrassingly eye-grabbing. Its cover was not designed to protect the pages but to alert witnesses: BEHOLD! I READ LITRACHUR! I wanted to hide it in my bag, but I was worried about my keys and pens scratching it. I realised I’d bought a dud: the book eclipsed the story. Embarrassed and a little smarter, we parted ways and I returned to my beloved cheapo paperback. A little later I bought replacement copies of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion: some publisher had re-released them with sexier covers (cream matte finish! silver-shiny curly-font titles! purple spine! squee!) and I fell for it. They were pretty, and the text inside was still the same — but did the new covers really bring anything to the party? My last editions were fine (as in undamaged and intact) and, when I saw them side-by-side, preferable. I’d been snookered by pretty covers. Again. (Dumbass.)

Maybe it’s because I’ve moved house too many times or maybe it’s because I hate cleaning stuff, but I’ve become increasingly object-averse, and that extends to books. I’ve made a promise to myself: when I buy a book, it’s for the experience, not the object. This roughly translates into “don’t buy a book you wouldn’t be happy about getting crumbs in/spilling wine on/shoving in your handbag with a set of keys, a pen of questionable integrity and a headphone adaptor jack”. This approach demands a good hard look at yourself (and your bookshelf), because for many of us “owning books” translates “being well-read” and vice versa. Books are powerful symbols of knowledge, learning and expression, not to mention fun and pleasure — that’s why the image of burning them is so potent. “Book = good to have” is near-tautological. But that doesn’t mean you have to own the shiniest, prettiest edition; it doesn’t mean you need to buy matching sets; it doesn’t mean you have to have the first edition; actually, you don’t need to own the book at all. If you loved reading a book, in no way is that experience diminished or negated if you choose to pass the physical object on. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own books that you love, but it means you don’t have to. It’s not obligatory. The love is in the words, not the book.

And that’s why e-publishing is so exciting: it changes the whole playing field. It sets aside the object of a book (and arguably replaces it with another one, the e-reader, but that’s a whole ‘nother post) and emphasises content. In theory. I think of it as liberating the experience from the object. I’ve heard plenty of comments along the lines of “but you can’t snuggle up with an e-reader like you can a book” and “you can’t take a book in the bath” (to which the immediate response is usually “can if I want”): the implication is that a book is a joy because it is a unique physical object. But I don’t agree. Books are fantastic because of the stories and knowledge in them, and we allow the physical object to embody the happy values we associate with reading. Once you decide the physical book isn’t essential to your enjoyment, the pie’s the limit.

For what it’s worth, I don’t have an e-reader. I don’t know that I need one yet: I’ve still got loads of books to read and an aversion to acquiring things. I do read a lot of electronic books, though. I use FBReader and Dear Old Cousin Gutenberg, which are both completely free and waiting for you right now.

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