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Tuesday
Apr242007

on books

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!"

It perplexes me sometimes, how I can spend so many hours with my head looking down and my eyes burrowing into the pages of a book. They really are curious objects, when you think about it. Made from paper harvested from trees, pressed with ink, held together with glue and sometimes thread, it's amazing how books can impact our lives the way they do. And, there are so many different kinds of books capable of communicating so many different things.

When I was a boy, usually before bedtime, my mother used to read to me. From what I can remember, my favorite book was called "Go Dog Go." It's a classic children's book about all kinds of colorful dogs racing toward a big party inside a huge tree. When we are children, books, with their simple life affirming stories, activate our imaginations and fuel our curiosities so well. And when we share those feelings with a loved one, we come alive and feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

As we grow older, however, our interest in books and reading seems to evolve. We read burdensome textbooks to educate ourselves in school, then we read fashionable magazines to stay popular among our peers. As adults, we may browse through serious newspapers to stay abreast of current events; and, if we can find the time, we might even read a "gripping" piece of popular fiction during an annual summer holiday.

I wonder if the very first bookmakers and bookbinders had any idea how influencial their invention would become? And, I wonder if they had any idea that the books they would so carefully print and bind would be replaced by a myriad of inexpensive publications that are picked up and thrown away at the drop of a hat.

During the last several years, I've worked for a Rare Book Conservation Center. Although I don't restore any of the historic volumes myself, I do work around them every day. I photograph them and carefully pack them in boxes and send them to far away universities. When I first started, I used to build custom cases and enclosures for books that were written and printed nearly 500 years ago. Many of these volumes are falling apart, but surprisingly, many of them are still in good condition. Some of the oldest volumes are often in the best condition, as they were usually made with the highest quality paper, ink, and vellum. To hold a book of this stature in your hands is truly a gift. Somehow, you can feel the love and care of the original bookbinder in the book itself.

Although I find the convenience of computers undeniable, I hope at least some books will continue to be made the old fashioned way. But, then again, perhaps this is simply not very realistic. Perhaps the best bindings should be reserved for the best writings. And, maybe there just aren't that many writings worth keeping around for 500 years. Perhaps the current publishing world is as it should be. Inexpensive paperbacks and electronic readers for quick, easy, temporal reading. No need to read substancial works the old-fashioned way, when there is money to be made and shopping to do.

Although I read a lot, I don't own that many books - probably under 200. Most of them are hardback editions, although I do own a few of the lesser, paperback variety. I think as I eventually generate some extra income, I'll update my collection a bit. I'll likely replace some of the cheaper volumes with better hardcover editions. I'm not sure how many new books I will continue to buy, however. Lately, I find it more valuable to re-read a classic a number of times, instead of forever expanding my collection.

I think certain things take a long time to appreciate. Like a close friend, a good book takes time to get to know. The more an author of such a book has in common with you, the more you feel at ease; and the more a part of yourself the book becomes. When you read a book that begins a new era of your life, a dormant part of your spirit wakes up.

Perhaps all good books foster a feeling of closeness and familiarity within their readers. The closer the book hits home, the more closely we hold it near. My literary friend Thoreau is someone who has walked a path that feels similar to my own. And, for this reason, my copy of Walden has become a book that will remain with me, either physically or spriritually, for a long time to come.

In the end, I am thankful for the books that have helped me to grow and evolve; and, not only will I continue to read them and handle them with care, I will also acknowledge them as important extensions of the person, and the writer, I am slowly trying to become.