We held books the way we held garbage or beloved children; that is, variously. They damaged our wrists and hearts, as so many things do, but we suffered through it for what we gained or hoped to gain from the experience.
In more than a few instances physical relations with a book outweighed the intellectual ones. Sometimes a book’s presence as an object was the only thing it could give me, and it would remind me of my own physicality, even as the books I so often turned to were supposed to be taking me up out of my limited body and into the inestimable ether of wisdom or beauty. When I consider what I remember about the words in books, I discover that even these memories often come to me as echoes of the book as object: I recall not a sentiment but a sentence, the way it looked on the page, where it was placed, where a particular word rushed to the edge of the margin and pulled me forward to the next line. If this is a memory of an idea it is an idea in a concrete and material form. Books were not only bricks filled with meaning, but traceable streams of ink, huddled together on paper whose whiteness I could measure against the whiteness or suppleness of others. In their mottled shades we found either a history or an occasion to invent one.
The book as we’ve known it will vanish, but much more slowly than some people fear. For all its faults (and it has many) the book is still a technological marvel, but so too are its modern progeny. I could just as easily document the peculiar beauty and utility of the virtualized book, flattened, transformed, searchable and memorable in its own fashion, new yet oddly familiar; it is just that I have more experience with the other kind. For this reason we should not lament the book’s fate, but we should begin to document some of its idiosyncracies before the feeling passes.
For reasons I can’t quite explain, I was always generally in the habit of treating books gingerly. Unlike many of my friends, I considered the rolling over of the cover, the busting of the spine, or the dog-earing of pages some kind of sacrilege. This was not because of any special reverence for the ideas contained within the books or because I used them less fervently, but because of some notion of their precious status as material objects. I flirted with the idea that there must be some kind of class formation attached to this but quickly discarded the idea as ridiculous. Where some treated their books the way they treated their socks and toothbrushes, I treated mine like a pet canary, holding it firmly but carefully, placing it on its shelf rather than tossing it about, coveting it as if it were a living thing, which it isn’t. It is the habit of many readers of books for them to wish, if only mildly, for the world around them to see what it is they’re reading, displaying the book’s carefully crafted cover whenever possible, and thereby giving the book some hope of a greater dignity and vitality in the world. But when I momentarily set a softcover book aside I would almost always place its cover face down, since I was worried that the cover was bending too much already, only thirty pages in.
A book was never just something to read. It was something to cradle or wield. Some we cupped like Yorick’s skull, bringing our thumb and pinky toward each other to make a pronged claw of our hand. With the other hand we steadied ourselves or played with our mouths and hair. With the right kind of paperback a master could flip the page with his thumb alone, sliding the right page over and holding it now on the left with his littlest finger. Even if the other hand was idle, this felt like some kind of skill worth cultivating. With a big hardcover the matter was different. Seated at a table or sitting upright in an armchair was usually a two-handed affair, fists clenching the book against closure in the way that a machine gunner tries to hold fire against the approach of a terrifying plane. How many months and years have my hands spent caressing them? I have left the indentations of my anxious thumbs on the margins of a million oversized pages. In the long lines and waiting rooms that fill so many of our days, I would wave a book or tap it like a drum when someone in charge of managing our patience came out and apologized, as if to say: I am not standing in line. I am not merely waiting.
In spaces with greater freedom I might lay out my body, on sofas or lounge chairs, on the grass itself. In those postures the book and the hand worked differently. There is a certain bunching of stiff fabric that happens around the crotch when you’re wearing denim, as I tend to; and I could recline my body and rest the weight of the book’s bound spine atop it, adjusting where necessary. In this manner my clothes would bear the brunt of the book’s weight, and my hands and arms could flip a page or change the book’s angle with ease. It seemed a less serious posture, though, and I would occasionally misinterpret this as a lack of seriousness in the act of reading, even though the words and meanings (when they’re there at all) aren’t contingent on such things.
There were whole worlds of touch and space involved. When books were mere means to an end we measured progress in inches. We selected shelves. You can find them in the backgrounds of our personal photos, dripping with cultural authority. We had preferred bookmarks. Entire catalogues from certain publishers were avoided simply because of the noxious glue that publisher used to bind the pages together. The spines of Vintage paperbacks gave gently but held their pages, although those pages always seemed to yellow more quickly than we would have liked. The stiff spines of New York Review paperbacks looked lovely but seemed to resist our efforts to open them fully, despite the wonders inside. There were books whose jackets gave them gravity, and others we removed in haste, embarrassed by their awkward designs. Well-meaning relatives would slice the book’s price from the jacket or blacken it with markers, and we would thank them for the gift, secretly horrified. We would force authors to sign their names in them when the author’s true signatures were already there.
Every break or interruption required physical attention and care. If a bookmark was a period, a finger held inside a book abruptly snapped shut was a mere semicolon. One signaled an end to the moment’s connection with the book, severed for an hour, a month, or (more than once) a lifetime; while the other often arrived unbidden, as when some quick and unexpected turn (sometimes taking place in the book itself, sometimes in the world outside) would force us to pull ourselves up from the words we’d been sinking into, already knowing we were ready to dive in once more, as soon as our thoughts or the mundane demands of life would allow.