a case for books

Are words enough?

Or do books themselves contribute to our experience, enjoyment and ability to remember once they’re back on the shelf?

Our bookcases are just too small. Or too few. Or something. They’re already over-stacked, yet seem daily to accrete new piles to further obscure the books behind. Every square inch of available space is stuffed so tight with paperbacks and hardbacks all shapes and sizes, you can hardly hook a finger in to pull one out. It’s time for a cabinet reshuffle. Taking the books down and reordering them to make space can be an emotional procedure, in which we rediscover old friends, dead loves, forgotten adventures; the peculiar personal history that otherwise lays dormant on our shelves.

I never feel more at home than amongst books. Like a dragon on a pile of gold, I can’t get enough and I don’t want to let go of my treasures. The musty quiet of second-hand bookshops attracts me like a pheromone, or a silent siren song that lures me in no matter what else I am supposed to be doing. I’m an addict of the zen-like stillness that descends, not knowing what I’m looking for until I stumble across it, and the childlike delight of stepping out with an unexpected find wrapped in a paper bag. I love to scan the bookshelves of friends and strangers, nosing through the titles as though it were an inventory of their inner world. And I am never quite able to trust someone who’s home has no books whatsoever.

I grew up around books, surrounded by books. My parents’ living room was dominated by great towering shelves that stretched all the way to the ceiling, on which books of every imaginable subject huddled. There were books of art, ancient history, and comparative religion. Natural science books, mythology books, and my father’s arcane chemistry books. There were great, thick dictionaries, and encyclopaedias spanning many volumes, some so ancient that their absent spines revealed bindings decaying like the skin of a mummy. The dining room, the landing and, eventually, even the stairs, were stacked to collapsing with fiction. Back-pocket paperbacks of Fleming, Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Dick, Wyndham, Heinlein, Pohl, Vonnegut, Updike, Irving, Roth, and on and on and on. With their weathered spines, browning pages and intense, evocative covers, they enraptured my childhood imagination—even before I could read—alluding to worlds of danger, mystery, and incomprehensible wonder. And, of course, the smell: part dust, part ageing paper, part unknowable residue from the many palms against which those spines had nestled, the many forefingers by which those pages had been turned.

There is something magical in a shelf stacked with books you have read, books you have yet to read. It is an intersection of the abstract and the physical, the internal and external, where pockets of memory and meaning are stitched, glued, and bound together, kept in store for us to reconnect with whenever we pick them up. On those shelves sit valuable pieces of our inner life, the words and stories that over time have come to shape—even define—who we are, or, at least, how we think of ourselves. They are nestled up against promises of future inspiration, future fulfilment: all the words and stories we are yet to read, but which call to us every time we see their spines on the shelf. They are both universal and uniquely personal: singular gifts that generations of writers have entrusted to all those prepared to read their words, to turn their pages, gifts that become ours as soon as we have read them. Once read they are a part of us, influencing or affirming the person we will become, interpreted through the lens of the person we are (or were) at the time.

There is a photograph of Samuel R Delany at work in his office that depicts this book-centric aesthetic. It’s taken from a position somewhere near the ceiling with a fish eye lens, and shows him seated behind his ancient word processor. Beside him a small window, behind him a door—the only clear spaces in a room otherwise completely dominated by books. Shelves cover every other available surface, stretching from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, each one packed to bursting with books. These shelves, and Delany himself, are further contained, held back by piles and piles and piles of freestanding books, towers of paperbacks made precarious by the convex distortion of the lens through which we view them. This picture seems to me like a freeze-frame from a longer, dynamic sequence; were we to resume playback, we would see the walls, the door, the window obscured, the dwindling space filled, and Delany, with barely space to move his fingers across the keyboard, walled in like the unwitting antagonist in Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. Yet in the picture he is grinning, arms wide, glad to be an axis between the books read, the books written and the book he is, we suppose, in that moment writing. The work becomes an extension of the books, the books an extension of the work, the read and the written an inseparable whole that includes the yet-to-be-read, the yet-to-be-written.

“So what?” says a voice (perhaps it is yours). “The book is just an object. It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Well, that may be true for you, Voice (whoever you belong to), but, for me, the book, the words, the story, and the experience of reading, are inseparable. Like the supposed duality of mind and body, they only appear to be disparate systems; in reality they are so entwined as to be indistinguishable. Perhaps this is why, whenever I read book-less words, electronic words, I find I have no capacity to retain them, no motivation to complete them. My eyes are engaged, and some aching portion of my frontal lobes, but it is like the buzzing of a mosquito, lacking the rich, deep tones that come from the other senses. The sampled sound and the supposed-to-be-reassuring animation of a page turning ring false: my body knows it is being deceived. And, worst of all, when the eBook is finished, it shrinks back to a mere string of words among others in a list, or a thumbnail among thumbnails on a virtual bookshelf. Whatever I have read disappears with it.

When it comes to books, I think like a primitive, like some pre-human animist who believes that the god is alive within the object itself. All I need to do is see the spine, touch the cover, inhale that smell, and the spirit of the book is reawakened inside me, a bubble of colour that tumbles upward from the darkness to burst into consciousness. Just knowing they are there all around me—these pockets of condensed meaning—makes me feel connected to some sense of self greater than I can hold in memory at one time; connected to every author, to every character or event, to every reader who, holding the book in their own hands, lives the same dream through the eye of their mind; connected to all those former selves, who, on the path to becoming the person writing these words, read all those books along the way.

I wouldn’t trade that for all the shelf space in the Library of Babel.