Sunday, January 9, 2011

Support Your Local Library

Because I am a voracious book reader and buyer, I was inundated with e-mails from Amazon and Barnes & Noble before Christmas pushing their electronic book readers, the Kindle and Nook respectively.  I know that many hard-core readers are switching from paper to e-ink, but I can't quite bring myself to do that yet.

Some years ago I read an essay by Isaac Asimov explaining why he thought reading on computers would never replace books.  Unfortunately, the essay isn't in any of the books I own or our small regional public library, but I think I still remember most of his arguments.  A few of them are outdated.  One was the inconvenience of hauling around a large electronic device.  Computers are much more compact than they were at the time he wrote his objection, and entry-level e-ink readers now weigh less than a pound and can easily be carried in a normal-sized purse or briefcase.  Asimov's insistence that computer reading would inevitably lead to eyestrain is also no longer valid due to the printed-page look and lack of backlighting in black-and-white e-reader screens.  I don't remember whether he thought getting enough digital reading material would be a problem, but the explosion of e-publishing, including that of free public-domain works, should ensure a plentiful supply for even the most demanding reader.

So why am I still hesitant to make the switch to e-reading?  Because, like Asimov, I love the look and feel and smell of a real book.  In my own collection I have a few beautiful books bound in soft real leather with gilt-edged pages and sewn-in silk ribbon bookmarks; now, those are BOOKS.  But I love even my battered old paperbacks with the broken spines, crumbling covers, and yellowing pages.  They all have that faint but unmistakable aroma of paper and ink.

It's the same smell - with the addition of old leather -  that can overwhelm the senses in a large public library.  I'll never forget visiting the main reading room of the British Library; I stood there for several minutes just inhaling.  Browsing for reading material in a library is also a different experience than browsing online; not as efficient, maybe, but much more sensual.  Yes, you can see the covers of books online at and maybe even read sample text, but that's not the same as being able to pluck a promising book from a shelf and flip through it at random.  Over the years I've read many books that I never would have searched for online just because I was attracted by an unknown author's name or a witty title or the unusual lettering on the spine.  I've always considered libraries to be essential elements of civilized societies.

My mother applied for my first library card when I was in kindergarten.  I've had a public library card everywhere I've lived since then.  I have one now, even though half of the floorspace in our local library is given over to computers, and a stack of library books is on my desk even as I type.  I'm worried that some day e-reading will kill off not just books but libraries, and the loss of those quiet cultural havens would be a tragedy.  (At least, they were quiet before people felt free to shout into their cell phones in them.)  Even if I eventually buy a Kindle or a Nook or an e-reader of another stripe, I will continue to buy hard-copy books and visit public libraries as long as they are available.  I hope you will, too.

"A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins."  ~Charles Lamb, Last Essays of Elia


  1. How incredibly sad it would be to have no libraries. There is something magnificent about seeing the rows of books with their worn bindings and inviting titles.

  2. As a fellow devotee, I couldn't agree with you more! There's something almost sacred about wandering aisles brimming with the condensed knowledge of centuries ... such a vast reserve of experience, knowledge, perspective, history. Each book is unique - the binding, the way it was crafted embuing it with it's own special "personality". As you say, it's a very sensory enjoyment.
    In contrast,reading an ebook seems a rather soulless experience.
    Let's hope that our dear old friends aren't bound for extinction.