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In praise of physical books

December 25, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.
Physical books have a special appeal. (Photo by Ed Robertson/Unsplash)

I seem to have annoyed some folks on Twitter, which is actually not all that hard to do (I've done it before). It always surprises me when this happens because I think I am tweeting something innocuous, but people sometimes read tweets much more carefully than I expect.

In this case, I meant to praise physical books.

I called them "real" books, which is what made some folks mad. They thought I was implying that e-books and audiobooks aren't real. I wasn't thinking that at all. I was just thinking about how lovely it is to spend some time with a gorgeous, well-designed physical book with pages made of heavy paper, maybe with deckle edges and French flaps, a book that takes its time about getting to the point and so you turn luxurious page after page with title, epigram, dedication, table of contents, no hurry here, let's not rush things, let us admire and slow down and think.

I love pretty much all physical books, to be honest. I love the cheap paperbacks that you can jam into a purse or a backpack with no fear of damage, even the old Bantam editions with the lurid covers. I love the used books that I pick up for a couple of dollars at Goodwill or a used-bookstore, with someone else's inscriptions and underlines and bookmarks. I love books that were published during wartime, with extra-thin paper to comply with government regulations; and I love exquisite books, with frontispieces protected by tissue paper, and with embossed covers (white on white is particularly striking), and satin ribbon bookmarks, black-and-white illustrations, maps and charts and timelines and casts of character.

I love them all.

There was a time, centuries ago, when books were highly prized and extremely valuable; they were so revered they were treated as almost holy. Bookmakers crafted them one at a time. They bedecked the covers with jewels and gold leaf, stitched the pages together painstakingly. The whole process could take weeks, even months, and when they were done: Voila! One book.

Years ago, I happened upon a museum dedicated to the history of the book -- the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin Castle. I remember walking around this very modern space in this very ancient building and gawking at the beautiful displays -- vellum, papyrus, illuminated manuscripts of the Quran and the Bible, centuries-old hand-bound books with leather covers and gilt type and marbled end sheets.

I do understand the easy appeal of e-books and audiobooks, and I agree that any way that people come to reading is valid and "real." Frankly, I read books on my iPad all the time, myself. I can carry around as many titles as I want to that way, and blow up the type, and change the brightness of the screen. They're handy. But I don't love them.

But physical books ... oh gosh, they have heft, they have scent, they have personality. You don't think you judge a book by its cover? Of course you do. I do. Everyone does. By the embossed cover, the deckle edges and the marbled end papers we shall know them. Perhaps I'll go back on Twitter and say so.

Print Headline: In praise of physical books

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