In Praise of Real Books
Words on paper promise worlds of possibility the digital era just can’t match
After taking a shower spiked with the indulgence of a raspberry-scented liquid gel soap, I settle onto the bed wearing my favorite pajamas, prop myself up on a mountain of pillows in differing degrees of fluffiness, and embark on the evening’s excursion of reading.On my nightstand, I have a stack of books to choose from — a collection of short stories I started then stopped on a whim, a memoir of a famous chef, a crime book by a friend, and an academic book by a colleague. It is a delicious decision, like choosing from the dinner buffet at a wedding reception — lemon chicken with capers or prime rib sliced by a grinning white-hatted chef ?
I choose one — the memoir — and as soon as I open to the chapter where I last left off, I am thankfully, gratefully immersed in my own brand of heaven. That may be because most every hour of the day I am sitting in front of my laptop, reading, writing, editing, holding meetings on Skype, responding to e-mails, deleting spam, and trying to meet deadlines.
At the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is curl up with another screen. I know, I know, it saves the trees, it is cost effective. My iPad stores thousands of books. But I have tried it and want none of it.
Books, real books, are what I love. I savor the smell of new books with the promise of discovery, the smell of old books musty and worn, bearing the indelible scent of history on every page.
Some may proclaim I am the last of a breed nearing extinction, but I do declare that reading ink on paper remains one of the greatest joys in my life. And apparently a whole lot of other people feel the same. The sales of printed books in the United States increased in 2017 to 687 million, according to Statista.com That’s a jump from 591 million in 2012. Last year book stores had sales of $10.73 billion. That, by the way, is about the same in total sales for bedding. I do not think the two are unrelated.
And while it may seem as if everyone on the el or at the beach is reading from a phone or tablet, more people read real books than you’d guess. During the last three quarters of 2017, $3.1 billion was spent on hardcover and paperback books
— e-books accounted for just $1.3 billion, and audio books for $490 million. So there.
New studies show that reading does more than relax your eyelids. University of Buffalo researchers found that it can satisfy the need for human connection and mimic the feelings we get in social situations.
“Social connection is a strong human need,” writes Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at UB. “Anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general and feel good about our lives.” We are transported, convinced of the otherness of possibility, rendered limitless thanks to the imagination of a gifted writer, cloaking us in his or her words.
Maria Popova, a literary maven with the weekly newsletter, Brainpickings — a love letter to literature and philosophy — writes that reading is a universal craving.
“Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us,’ Carl Sagan said books were ‘proof that humans are capable of working magic;’ James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, they stood as our ‘ultimate frontier of freedom.’”
I agree that books I can hold in my hands have all of those qualities and more. Author Neil Gaiman writes, “Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes . . . You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
For me, reading is respite, escape, comfort. It can also offer a shaking free from the moment, a shock, a disturbance of the status quo. Sometimes what I read alarms me, forces me to a new point of view, awakens me. The books I read seed my dreams and follow me through my days, hovering over me like an angel or a curse.
Holding a book in my hands on this unpredictable journey is a way for me to float freely. At the same time, I know that I am tethered in the moment, connected to gravity. I may temporarily disappear into the ether of an imaginary world, transported by the sheer will of the writer. But I am home.Edit Module