Today’s (12/4/2011) New York Times carries a front-page article on a publishers’ strategy for old-fashioned print books. As many readers shift to e-books, the article reports, publishers have decided to concentrate on the style and cover design of paper texts. This is a wise recognition that books are aesthetic objects. Just as the invention of photography encouraged painters to concentrate on the qualities of paint as a medium, rather than on painting as representation, so e-books should encourage emphasizing the unique qualities of books as objects.
I’m emotionally attached to the printed page, but objectively I can see few reasons that the e-book cannot replace paper. The codex replaced the scroll, and I hear few people today lamenting that substitution. When the Alexandrian librarian Callimachus complained “μέγα βιβλίον, μέγα κακόν” [“a big book is a big evil” or “a big book is a lot of trouble”], I think he may have been talking about large scrolls, which can be hard to handle. The codex, or bound volume of pages (the book as we know it today) came into popular use at about the time that Christianity spread across the Roman Empire. With its collection of identifiable pages and manageable format, the codex offered a clear functional improvement over the scroll. Similarly, the searchable e-book may have functional advantages over the paper text. I do sometimes wonder whether the screen promotes the same depth of concentration as the page, but this is only my speculation.
While I like those nicely decorated new books, though, and see them as the right publishing move for the electronic era, the printed books that I like best are the old ones, passed down from the hands of earlier readers, with histories as well as tactile and visual appeal. I don’t collect expensive rare books. Fortunately, my tastes are as modest as my budget. I especially like cheap used hardcover volumes, such as those in the Modern Library series, that bear inscriptions from previous owners. These give me a sense of connection to strangers across time and space. Sometimes these inscriptions together with the titles suggest their own tales on top of the accounts intended by the authors. In my collection, I think my favorite book is a 1944 Harper & Brothers edition of Aldous Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop. The inscription on the inside of the front cover reads:
Daddy & Mamma
Opposite, on the initial flyleaf, a different handwriting records:
Jno. St. Greene Jr.
(Somewhere in the Pacific)