Books are bricks — important ones.

Et Cetera

Or: Why I’m not going to renounce my library of printed books no matter how digital the future becomes.

Thanks to the success of dedicated portable devices like the Kindle, but also considering the new interactive possibilities introduced by the iPad, digital books are getting more and more emphasis and attention. Printed books are holding up, but there’s also a recent resurgence of ‘minimalism’, of a ‘less-is-more’ philosophy, that worries me a bit when physical books and personal libraries are the target of these ‘unclutter your life’ websites.

Yes, I know that having thousands of books in digital form on a portable device is handy and cool and lets you save space. Thousands of real books make for quite a cumbersome library and, especially for people who move a lot, that can be a hindrance. I myself enjoy the convenience of e-books: two of the most used apps on my iPhone are Classics and Eucalyptus. But getting rid of my books and the library I’ve grown over the years? Never.

When I talk about the value my books have for me, people immediately think of sentimental value. Or that there’s some kind of nostalgia involved. Or that it’s just me being the usual packrat. It’s not that. I can let go of things. I admit it’s not a completely pain-free process. No object that has lived with me for a while is ‘just an object’, but the few times I had to lighten my luggage I was able to eliminate the clutter and get rid of things I had no use for. When I relocated in Spain a few years ago there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t bring with me. I only made two trips with my old van, so the space was limited. Most of the furniture of the old Italian flat where I was living had to go. And since that flat was the place where my grandparents had lived for 24 years, there were many many objects with great sentimental value. I decided to save only the books and the vinyl records.

My grandfather had a remarkable library: lots of encyclopaedias, but also fantastic volumes on art, navy & aviation history, anthropology, literature, medicine, etc. When he died, I merged his library (of books and vinyl records) with mine, and the result was more than a thousand books, and a few thousands of records. The relocation forced me to split this sizeable archive, so I left my grandfather’s records to my parents and some bookshelves of encyclopaedias to a good friend who kindly agreed to be their custodian for as long as possible. (I’ll never be able to thank him enough for this). I brought to my flat in Spain all the books I personally purchased and read, plus the best art history volumes that belonged to grandpa. This smaller library I feel very close to me, very personal.

So, what’s the value I was talking about? It’s connected to memory. My personal history, my past up to now, is made of memories that have to be stored somehow. Our brain is the warehouse, but since we’re not using it at its full potential, it’s simply impossible to store everything in it. We tend to store what we consider important, while the passing minutiae of everyday life are usually thrown away in the short term. I can’t remember what I had for lunch eight days ago, but if something important happened at the beginning of September 1997, or in May 1980, or in February 2000, I will have some image, some record of what happened. Sometimes it’s just the date that sticks out like a bookmark, a reminder of an event that gets abstracted with the passing of time, but the general feeling remains. Sometimes the memory of a certain morning, a certain light, or a place, or a piece of dialogue, are preserved and help compose a richer picture around the date.

Here’s the thing: my books are memory triggers. Containers of both the literary work of their respective authors, and personal memories and snapshots of my past, of my history. I can pick any book in my library and remember some occasion, event, or watercolour of feelings connected to it. I usually have a pretty good picture of the circumstances surrounding its purchase (where I was, with whom, my mood and how my life was in that period, etc.), and in some cases the book triggers collateral memories and events (e.g.: that is the book I was reading on a train to Florence when I met a nice old man and we had a chat about Italian poetry of the 1960s; I was going to Florence to meet C. and S. and boy what a hot day it was — surely around June). All the memories connected to my books are obviously stored somewhere at a subconscious level. Without my library, I’d probably be able to remember such things anyway, but with a greater effort, and I would surely end up forgetting a lot. My library, in a way, lets me remember more and lets me add more events to my inner warehouse. I also end up with the feeling that things get archived in a more organised way. My books are bricks that constitute an important part of my personal building. My books are not a burden. My books are not ‘clutter’ to get rid of.

I hold a book, maybe one of Joyce’s works, and its colour, its size, the cover illustration, the smell of the pages, its layout, the typefaces used, everything sends signals and coordinates to my brain, which in turn starts redrawing parts of the memories associated with the book. And in a few moments here it is: the rainy early afternoon of a dark December day in 1992; the brown leather suitcase I was carrying; the feeling of emptiness and hunger for more novels, more poetry that could hopefully fill that void; the smell of a narrow alley in Milan, fuel, asphalt, tyres, a cigar just put out, but also the lovely whiffs coming from a bakery nearby. All is coming, like reading a magnetic tape, like a painting that appears before my eyes, stage after stage.

Digital books are immaterial. Words that flow and pass like trains with origins and destinations unknown to me. Yes, I may enjoy the story or the essay. Yes, I may remember it. But it ends there. How did I buy it? By clicking a button or an icon on my iPhone. When did I buy it? Uh, it was a day like another, I guess. How was I feeling, how was my day? Can’t say at the moment. Beneath the digital layer of words on the electronic page, I just see an odourless, colourless, nondescript, gaping oblivion.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!

3 Comments

  1. As much as I love books, I don’t find digital to be intangible. It is just a different format. I know the feel of every single key on my keyboard and I remember the important days by what I did earlier in the day and what was sitting on the desk, and what smells came through the window. I also remember how I found out about a book and which blog I was reading or which friend recommended it. The digital ties can be very strong.
    Othertimes it is just a click and a load but sometimes buying a book is like that too. It is bought and put in a bag and taken home and read and discarded. Those that last, last regardless of format.

    • Cassandra: Of course I can’t expect that everyone feels like me about printed and digital books, and I see your point. However, it’d be interesting to know whether the memories connected to a digital book can last and be as vivid as a printed book after 10–15 years. The fact is, an e-book can change format and layout as we migrate the data to a newer device; it hasn’t the same form as a physical book. The latter, by remaining unchanged over the years, can act as a much better memory trigger — at least for me. A glance at it, and bam, it’s that book I bought in that bookstore. And from there, memories come like a waterfall. I find that a printed book has more attributes than its digital counterpart: it bears a physical identity in addition to the literary work it contains. With a digital work, the only element I can rely on is the work itself. I have to actively remember the circumstances at the time I read a particular work in digital format. And (for me, I repeat) it’s harder. For instance, I know that some time ago I read The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole on my iPhone, but I really can’t remember when, and if I open the e-book nothing particular triggers my memory. The only thing I’m left with is the feeling, the notion that I enjoyed it, and not much else.

      Cheers,
      Rick

  2. Man, what a beautiful article. My personal experience with my books is quite similar to your, with an addition: I tend to put little notes, flyers, even photographs, inside whichever book I’m reading; months or years later, when I re-read that book or flip through its pages just for fun, sometimes I find these little nice surprises, which in turn reinforce the memories of the days when I was reading that book. Plus: there’s no such thing as too many bookshelves.

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