Tuesday, June 16th 2015
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.