Strolling along the South Bank one sunny afternoon, I came across an old friend lurking at a second-hand bookstall under Waterloo Bridge:
It was a 1963 Penguin first edition and it was unthinkable that I should carry on without it, so it now resides on my bedside table. Unthinkable because my original copy (which was borrowed-or as I prefer to think of it, inherited-from a loved aunt, and was therefore probably an even older, 1960 edition) ended up in such tatters that it had to be thrown away some years ago. Moreover, it had to be this copy in particular because I could then spend my afternoons in the company of Bertie Wooster, his friend Reginald “Kipper” Herring, the Rev. Aubrey Upjohn and the playboy Wilbert Cream just the way I had always done: on crumbly, yellow, musty-smelling paper. Would I still love Jeeves in the Offing if it were printed on snowy sheets that smelled of fresh glue, or on a light-optimised screen? Of course. Would I love it as much? No.
It’s hard to imagine e-books functioning as stores of memories and associations in the same way. Nor are they suitable for gifting. They make it impossible to form judgements about people who read on public transport. And they obviate the need for cover art, which when done well becomes as much a part of the reading experience as the words on the page. This cover of Tender is the Night, for instance, is simultaneously beautiful and disorientating, hinting at a disquiet beneath the glamorous surface; it packs the all the themes of the book into a single unforgettable image:
This is why I hope paper books never disappear, and so the opening of Foyles bookshop in London at a new, larger location two weeks ago is heartening. The best way forward, it seems, is for physical books to co-exist happily with their digital counterparts.
For e-books do have their uses, as I have found, and not just the obvious ones of convenience and portability. In the past, I used to avoid them whenever possible because I take pleasure in feeling the weight of a book in my hands and being able to turn pages in a silent, meditative rhythm. (There’s a wonderful lyric in the musical Matilda by Tim Minchin that runs
…Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.
That almost-silence is so much better than the dead silence of a tablet or low hum of a laptop.) Anyway, every time I used to buy a book, I just reached unthinkingly for the paper version-I planned to take my books with me wherever I went and have a house full of them wherever I lived, and what better way to get a sense of everything that you’ve done and learned over a lifetime than surrounding yourself with the books that accompanied you on the way?
It is different now. The end of one’s life is not the time for accumulation, but the opposite-a paring away, a stripping down to essentials. I have to think carefully about what to add to my bookshelf, because in some time my books will cease to belong to me, and may not be of use to anyone else in my family, and become cumbersome to get rid of. So I still buy paper books, but only if the book satisfies the following criteria:
1. Unavailable in my local library
2. Over 500 pages-I have a block when it comes to reading long books on my iPad because I need a visual reminder of how far in I am and how much there is to go, and it’s hard to picture what “30% remaining” of a book means
3. Under 500 pages, but the paper book has an element the e-book can’t quite reproduce. This category generally consists of cartoon collections, books that are illustrated, and poetry
4. By P.G.Wodehouse, because they will always find a reader in my family. I am equally happy to leave them for future generations to discover in second-hand bookshops.
So any non-Wodehouse under 500 pages that does not fall under 3. and cannot be found at the library is purchased in e-book format, to be stored unobtrusively on my iPad, getting in nobody’s way. There are still times when I want to dispense with my rules and continue to acquire physical books and surround myself with them-loved objects all, bringers of colour and comfort and joy-as an affirmation that I am still alive, that I may be dying but am not dead yet. But the instinct to simplify and de-clutter prevails. That has a satisfaction of its own.