Wednesday 23 March 2011

On what remains

I've been thinking a lot lately about the physical existence of books. Not in a metaphysical way, but a wondering-when-they-will-stop-making-them kind of way.

I think soon when people put a book to print, it will be because putting into physical form brings something that an e-format wouldn't make: like the colour-saturated pages of Lauren Redniss's 'Radioactive', or Judith Schalansky's 'Atlas of Remote Islands', where the restraint of the design plays off against the pleasure she describes into walking your fingers over a map. To make a book physical will be to make it covetable for its very form.

Then again - you can't predict the future. And the physical nature of books has a way of speaking, as much as the words in them. Take these two recent articles from the New Yorker book blog

One includes this photo of a library in Sendai, Japan, and muses on the outflowing of photos of books rocked from their shelves in the earthquake:

Books shaken to the floor provide a good visual measurement of the power of the quake: we can easily visualize how the rows looked before, how nice and tidy they were, and we can imagine the sort of force needed to dislodge them. But the images also allow us to glimpse the destruction in a relatively benign environment—books are not people.

The other describes the work of photographer Yuri Dojc, who seeks out and photographs Jewish books that survived the Holocaust.

I've been thinking about books and memories this year, waxing all nostalgic about issues slips. Remember those? The cards that got taken out of a book and tucked into a wooden box until you returned it to the Library? The flimsy sheet of paper glued into the inside back cover, and the satisfying ker-chunk of the date stamp as it imprints your due-date.

(Or the lack of an issues slip at all).

I want to bring them back. Partly because I loathe the slippery issues slips you get given now - useless as bookmarks and as reminders. Partly because I miss that joy of opening a book and realising you're the first person in twenty years to want it enough to take it out. And partly because of the sense of history and yes, even community, that builds up around a well-used issues slip. Yes, it would be very convenient to have the library catalogue hooked up to my calendar, so a reminder is inserted the day before a book is due. But it would be damn near romantic if you put a date-stamp next to the self-issue machine and let me mark my books myself.


Catherine said...

My random thoughts: I know that kindles are useful etc, but when our 4-year-old's Great-Grandmother died late last year, I was at a loss as to how to approach death in an easy-to-understand manner. Jolisa Gracewood recommended this book: and we sat down & read it repeatedly for several days, at Mr 4's request. In my mind, the comfort of snuggling up with our child, letting him turn the pages and stroke the pictures, couldn't possibly be replicated with an electronic device... Physical books are special.

Courtney Johnston said...

I don't think I'll be giving up on the physical book yet. Totally pragmatically, it's still cheaper for me to use the library; I have such a long reading list that I don't mind waiting for reserves to come through.

And yes - physical books are special, especially when you get to share there.