A useful, healthy-minded distinction. We don’t read Coriolanus or Leskov’s stories for information, and most of us don’t read dictionaries or field guides for pleasure (there are exceptions). But Maureen Mullarkey, in “Because the Incarnate Matters,” points out a fading reality lost on the congenitally digital: books exceed their merely utilitarian purposes. She continues, on the subject of reading:
“And like any love, it has a physical dimension. There is more to it than simply ingesting print. Love of reading begins with pleasure in the look, feel, and weight of a book. Even the smell of books—seasoned ones—carries an enchantment. Redolent with memory, they do more than conjure the past for us. They bind us to it.”
I remember the pleasure all my sons took in books as physical objects even before they were toddlers. Sure, they tore some pages, and my youngest chewed off part of a paperback cover, leaving tooth marks. But the ingenious engineering of a book, the way pages move when riffled, like leaves of grass in a breeze, is seductive, and gives us a handy metaphor for the book’s contents, its latent energies. All it takes to get things moving is a reader.
The danger here is fetishizing. The e-books Mullarkey discusses have never tempted me. I’m generally resistant to new gadgets of any sort, and don’t like clutter, digital or otherwise. But it’s good to remember that most traditional books from any era are junk. Ever hopeful, I scan the crowded “Book Sale” shelves in our neighborhood branch library, but in five years I’ve purchased only two volumes, at 50 cents apiece, one of which was for the book-chewer mentioned above. The rest are bestsellers, self-help, computer manuals, textbooks and old National Geographics. In short, clutter. But the books important to me, the ones I’m certain to read again, are layered indelibly with memories. They are more truly mine than my neckties, laptop and car.
Reading is an intimate, solitary pleasure. I can’t imagine the horrors posed by a book club. We know our books with an intensity and thoroughness customarily reserved for friends. And like friends, they change across time as we change, and are never stale, always new and a little mysterious. Mullarkey writes: “Reading for the delight of it—however sober the topic—is a kind of play. To be lost in a book is a festivity pursued for its own sake.” I have no wish to condemn or abolish e-books. Like so many passing vogues, they leave me not hostile but indifferent. I feel the same about electric razors and electric cars. I like the idea of an object -- a book -- suffused with the sensibilities of its creator and its user. As Mullarkey puts it:
“Words flicker across a screen, fugitive and insubstantial. By contrast, words inked onto a page are still corporeal, however slight. They occupy space, have weight and texture. They are really there. So, too, the page that holds them: Every physical book is a concrete embodiment of mind, in its way an incarnation.”