Heavy words

Tuesday, June 16th 2015

Oxfam Bookshop, Islington
Oxfam Bookshop, Islington

The book is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. It influences our thoughts, shapes our ideas and moulds our civilization. It is crucial to our progress because without books to transmit our accumulated knowledge and understanding, each generation would have to start again, almost from scratch.

Books have been through many transformations during their existence and each new form has brought about a revolution in culture and learning. For most of us growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, the book had reached its final and most perfect form as a set of printed pages glued together inside a protective cover. I remember how, when the concept of the electronic book was first mentioned, many of us expressed doubt that such a chimera would ever awaken interest, let alone supplant the beloved paper book. We could not then imagine how fast we were speeding towards a world of Kindles and Kobos and people reading books on tablet computers and even on their smart phones.

Convenient and easy to distribute as the ebook may be, the paper book is fighting back valiently. Many of us who regularly read on a screen rather than on paper still prefer the traditional book. There is something about the feel, smell and weight of a ‘real’ book that imparts a thrill and a pleasure that no electronic analogue has so far managed emulate.

For these and many other reasons, I think it will be a long time before the traditional paper book disappears, if ever it does. Of course, time likes to embarrass prophets and the future may very well prove me wrong.

There is a problem with paper books, however, that is not felt, at least not so strongly, by its digital cousin. A digital book takes up a minuscule amount of electronic memory and we might say that its size is virtual rather than actual. The paper book, in contrast, has a definite physical size and weight. Putting that more succinctly, books take up space.

How much space does a book take up? If you think of the average book as the £6.99 paperback, then the answer is ‘very little’. Who refuses the gift of a book because it takes up too much space? The idea is laughable, or at least, it is to book lovers. But all those very-littles add up. What is true of an ideal gas is also true of your book collection: it expands to fill all the available space. Unlike a gas, however, books don’t stop there. They go on accumulating. There seems to be no way to halt their insidious population growth.

Thus it was that we were recently forced to make a stern decision: we had to cull the herd. If not with tears in our eyes, then at least with trepidation in our hearts, we reviewed our book collection and began selecting candidates for exile. These were torn from their comfortable resting place (sometimes with difficulty as they were so tightly crammed together) and piled in a stout bag.

We filled the bag but it was difficult work. How do you decide that a book is no longer required? What crystal ball can inform you that never ever again will you need to look within the pages of this book, or that one, or the one jammed behnd the bookend in the corner? Books you have not thought of for years and that you wouldn’t have thought of now, were you not engaged in this review, suddenly seem necessary and indispensable.

Somehow, the dire task was completed, and we heaved the bag to one side where it wasn’t too much in anyone’s way, promising one another to take it along to the Oxfam bookshop soon. You know, next time we’re up that way.

Several weeks later, the bag was still not too much in anyone’s way but it was definitely still here. It had not moved an inch towards the Oxfam bookshop. It clearly wasn’t going to do so unless further stern measures were put in train. In the meantime, we consoled ourselves with saying, every time we passed the bookshop, ‘Oh, we could have brought those books with us’ and ‘Remind me to do it next time’.

Next time, like tomorrow, never comes, and so, today, I decided to make a special journey to the Oxfam bookshop. I also needed to buy a notepad and one of those plastic in-trays for putting urgent things in and forgetting them. As luck would have it, I could buy these items at Rymans which was just a little further along the street from the Oxfam bookshop. I grabbed the bag and headed out.

Have you ever carried a bag of books? As well as size, books possess weight. Not much weight, I know, but weight nonetheless. Especially when you get a heap of them together in one bag. I should have put them in the shopping trolley but by the time I had realized this, I was too far down the street and too proud to turn and go back.

Einstein was right. Distances are not constant. How far away something is depends on your point of view. (I have forgotten the equation that describes this effect but it’s probably on Wikipedia somewhere.) High velocity makes your clock slow down (Einstein said) and he could have added that carrying a heavy bag expands the distance you have to travel with it. The bookshop is usually quite near. Today it was rather a long way away.

I arrived at last and gratefully lay my burden down. I left the shop feeling quite light on my feet. Then I continued up the street to Rymans, returning home afterwards, with notebook and tray and a feeling of a job well done.

Our bookshelves don’t look all that depleted. In fact, you can hardly see the difference. I’m sure, though, that when we need to, we’ll manage to lever a few more volumes into place.

Copyright © 2015 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to Heavy words

  1. cbramhall says:

    I could never bring myself to part with books at one time. Each one had been so carefully, so lovingly selected in the first place that it seemed ungrateful to dispose of them. But as you say, they each take up a small but finite space and until someone invents the infinite shelf to keep them on, sacrifices are now having to be made here too.

    There are other advantages of paper books over ebooks though. For instance, they can provide insulation for heat/cold or sound and can also be considered a form of carbon capture, since the carbon in the organic materials from which they are made is not being immediately returned to the evironment as CO2.

    • SilverTiger says:

      There is also the advantage that you can put fingers in several places in a paper book and flick back and forth between them, a trick I have never managed with an ebook!

      • cbramhall says:

        I used to find myself doing that with dictionaries as I got sidetracked on the way to the word I was looking for. Nearly every time, I would run out of fingers.

  2. WOL says:

    Having had to cull my herd radically (by half in each case) I hear you. Thankfully, Friends of the Library came and carted my culls off. The last time, they came fully equipped with boxes. It took a considerable number. I now have a rule. If it’s not a book I would want to read again, out it goes. It first goes up for sale on Amazon. If it doesn’t sell within a couple of months, my knitting group meets in a library branch (they have a meeting room available for scheduling). They have several large bins to collect books for their quarterly book sales. I need to load up another bag.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I have thought of selling old books (taking them to a secondhand bookseller is another option) but the likely income is barely worth the hassle. If Oxfam makes a few pence on them, this goes to a good cause.

  3. Loved this post. “Cull the herd” We downsized a few years ago and there’s not near the space for all the book shelves. It wasn’t easy, but bags have gone to the the small city library where they will keep some and sell the others through eBay or book sales to buy more books for the community. My grandmother always said books needed to be in the hands of those who wanted to read them – ideas need to be read to live, so I console myself with that.
    Had to laugh at your description of hauling the load to the bookshop and it seeming to get farther and farther away…and you being lighter after leaving “your burden”. Always enjoy your writing style.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I was in a somewhat whimsical mood when I wrote that, as you no doubt detected🙂

      Books are like lamps: they need to be “switched on” in order to shine. With lamps you just press a switch but books need to be read and thought about to bring them alive.

  4. Mark Elliott says:

    I fully understand your predicament when deciding on a cull. I have never quite mastered the art of drastically thinning out the herd. In fact, one of the reasons I keep on my quite large house instead of downsizing is in order to give my books a home!

    As for ebooks, I am a great fan. you can usually download from amazon all types of 18th- and 19th-century classics free, something to be thankful for, considering that a lot of them are out of print, so a physical copy would be be either impossible or quite expensive to buy.

    However, ebooks also create vices. On more than one occasion, I have found myself pressing the bottom of a printed page, trying to make the dictionary appear!

    • SilverTiger says:

      There is certainly a marvellous supply of free reading in the ebook market. Project Gutenberg and other sites are a boon. I have three ebook readers on my iPhone, Kindle, iBooks (the native Apple app) and my favourite, Bluefire. I consequently have a library in my pocket and can always while away the time usefully on journeys or in waiting rooms.

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