the weight of words, or,why I will never buy an e-reader

Never I say! You’ll have to pry books from my cold, dead hands.

It’s not often I say never but when it comes to my books all bets are off. In most cases I’m not a big fan of stuff, of things. In any other situation I’d gladly trade three hundred things for one that served the same purpose. But in this case I can’t even get past the initial thought, “What would I do with all that space, were bookcases not occupying it?”

Books have always been my backdrop. When I moved to Calgary at the tender age of twelve, I remember our mum taking us to the public library to get our own library cards. As I carefully signed my shakily handwritten name, I asked the librarian how many books I was allowed to check out at once.

“As many as you want, dear” she said, smiling kindly.

AS MANY AS I WANT? Like, 99? 300? A THOUSAND? My mind was blown, I felt like I was reeling, staggering backwards with the weight of all these theoretical books. They could be mine! All mine! All of the words and ideas and plots and characters in that entire dumpy concrete building were available to me. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Ah, you might be saying, but Madeleine that’s the SAME feeling you’ll get with a kindle (or one of its blue-light emitting brethren), the entire contents of hundreds of libraries, all at your fingertips!

No. Just…no. I can’t even begin.

Okay, first, the paper. Even nowadays this is a rarity but every so often, trailing your finger along the spines in a bookstore, you’ll catch an unusual weight. A book made with raw, uneven pages that look like they’ve just been cut. The paper is thick and creamy and I admit I am guilty of immediately thinking “This book must be incredible, needing such weighty pages to hold its words.” I judge that book by the pleasing heft of its paper and I, more often that not, bring it home with me.

Our town used to have a bookstore (the “used to” part makes my heart hurt, but that’s the topic for another post. One about the death of independant businesses in our small town, about the only subject which I have ever found myself penning impassioned letters to the editor. About the empty spot in our main street where words used to live.), in this bookstore they had an impressive used books section. Call to mind if you can, feeling the well-worn pages of a second hand book, years or even decades old. The soft, muzzy feeling of the pages, littered with thumbprints and smudges from dozens of other readers before you. Small tokens bearing witness to the absolute power of those words that each reader was unable to put the book down even long enough to eat – choosing instead to absentmindedly wolf down a sandwich, or maybe even just a coffee, while raptly devouring the story.

Second: The people. I mean “people” in an all-encompassing sense, enveloping librarians, bookstore owners, readers and authors all. We live in such a cold faceless world already, (Drive through banks? Really?) please let’s not take people out of this equation as well. All the googling in the world couldn’t replace the ten minutes I spent with our bookstore owner, describing a terrifying book I remember reading as a child.

“It was set in the North,” I began, “The children were Inuit and wore fur-hooded coats. They were warned not to play by the ice but they didn’t listen…something happened and sea witches captured them, they took the children to live under the sea and they froze. The children froze, they couldn’t find their way out from under the ice. It was horrible.”

She helped me search and patiently listened to me describe the garbled, hazy plot of a story I hadn’t read in twenty years (AND, I should hasten to add, had no intention of buying if she did in fact have it. I told her this. I told her this before we began searching and she gladly helped anyway. +1 BOOK PEOPLE). It turns out the book was a disappointingly thin-paged Robert Munsch story, but where would I be without her? Still googling “scary sea-witch book” probably.

Also under people: seeing strangers read. Short of peering over your shoulder, I can’t see what you’re reading on a kindle and perhaps thats why you like it. One more way to remain indistinguishable, anonymous in public. All the easier to not be judged for reading Confessions of a Shopoholic instead of Anna Karenina, I suppose. But it also takes an element out of people watching, and dare I say, out of humanity. I love looking at people and being surprised by what they have splayed open in front of them. Women who could be my grandmother engrossed in smutty romance novels, or the latest Twilight saga, young men cracking the spine of a virgin copy of Mrs. Dalloway. I love that surprise and with it the risk of my voyeurism – the chance meeting of eyes over a book.

Third: The historical element. The heritage element. I remember standing in front of my parents bookshelf and selecting what to read, reflecting, as I waded through books light-years ahead of my comprehension levelc that my mom had read these same words. My dad had puzzled over the same ideas. Sometimes I would find a hastily scribbled note in the margins or a dog eared page and it marked that moment of time for them. It was the secret signal of a thought they deemed too important to let go, or a sudden interruption (perhaps by a baby? perhaps by me?) and a hasty place-marking, throwing the book to be picked up and resumed later. I want my children to have my books. I want them to hold them as I did, see where I smudged, spilled tea and underlined. I want them to take them into the bath as I often do and have a few wrinkled pages as their biggest concern should they drop them.

Fourth: Because I can’t imagine a feeling of accomplishment greater than holding a book with my name on the spine. Seeing my name typed on a screen is something I can do already.

To conclude: I’ll never do it. I’ll never let go of my books as BOOKS. Paper and words, tangible, substantial things. You’ll have to pry them from my cold dead hands.

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