Tome raiders

Sally Feldman hails the e-book’s rise - but many won’t abandon the paper trail

July 14, 2011

It’s official. The paper book is on the way out. Since April, Amazon has been selling more e-books than paper ones. And sales of the Kindle are rocketing, too. What a liberation! No more groaning shelves; no more tattered, marmalade-smeared pages; no more over-the-limit luggage at airports. What could be more elegant, contemporary and clean than a simple little screen carrying your entire library?

But tell that to an academic and you’ll hear shrieks of outrage. Scholars, it seems, will not easily be ripped from their covers. Books for them are like military ribbons - campaign medals, badges of honour. Not only do academics love them, use them, work with them. They also actually write them.

At Harrow, where my school is located, we are undergoing a major redevelopment, which means people have to move offices and leave their junk behind - and I mean junk. One journalism tutor had filled his tiny box of a room with layers upon layers of newspaper clippings going back years - plastered on walls, littering the carpet. It was like peering into the lair of a serial killer.

In the midst of the move I’ve spotted vintage LPs, precious prints, guitars, many pairs of shoes and a squashy armchair. But more than any of this, in every office and teetering on floors and desks - books, books, books and more books.

People like to see their offices as second homes (or rather, their partners do). Often, the stuff is simply there because some houseproud husband won’t tolerate it at home. I know someone who had to rent a flat when he retired just to house his books, since his wife wouldn’t give an inch to all those hefty volumes.

And even when you know it is time to start downsizing your collection - when, for example, your house is so overladen that the front door won’t open - it’s still a wrench to get rid of a book: like tearing flesh from flesh. Try it yourself. Take down some dusty tome you reviewed 20 years ago that you know you’ll never consult again. Throw it into the wastepaper basket. Go on, you can do it.

But you can’t, can you?

My friend Stan Cohen has developed a points system for approaching the task. You have to divide your collection into books you love and can’t live without; those with some sentimental value; and those you are likely to need for reference. Whatever is left over is for the chop.

But then what do you do? If you can’t bear the idea of the dump or the skip, a more palatable approach is to recycle. But that’s not as straightforward as it seems, either. Have you ever tried to offload your less-loved books to charity shops? More often than not they’ll turn them down. It’s very insulting - like a slur on your character.

For books are more than mere objects, more than reference works, more than their contents. They represent our personality and our taste.

When we display our books we are displaying an intimate part of ourselves. Many a promising romance has foundered on the rocks at the point when one inspects the other’s shelves. What happens if you discover a penchant for Jodi Picoult or an obsession with photographic depictions of Boy Scouts?

And books, pristine unread ones squashed alongside the much-thumbed or scribbled-in, also represent the borderline between reality and good intentions. We keep them hoping that we’ll eventually get round to reading them all. And as the years go by and the dust collects, that ambition recedes until one day we realise, sadly, that there just won’t be enough time left. Those serried rows are an ornament of reproach - and a terrible reminder of mortality.

In order to ward off such fears of death, some book lovers take their passion to extremes. These are collectors, as opposed to serendipitous accumulators. They are the kind of people who need to have every single example of some category: all Pelican books, for example, or every version of The Canterbury Tales. Or all first editions. Jean Baudrillard, in his essay “The system of collecting”, suggests that these obsessives don’t really, deep down, want to complete their collection, for “whereas the acquisition of the final item would in effect denote the death of the subject, the absence of this item still allows him the possibility of simulating his death by envisaging it in an object, thereby warding off its menace”.

Indeed, caring too passionately about books, warns Walter Benjamin, is a form of madness: “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them become criminals…Thus there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.”

But for most of us, our attachment to books is a visceral one. We like to hold them, to turn the pages or to fold down the corners. We like the pictures on the covers and the reminders of favourite passages marked with a felt tip or, for some, a dried rose petal. You can’t experience any of this with a Kindle.

So here’s a small literary crumb of comfort for bibliophiles everywhere. Back at Harrow, where we are rebuilding the campus, there’s going to be a new building where Learning Resources used to be. It’s going to have lots of computers, masses of audio-visual resources, areas for quiet study and hubs for collective work. You can even take out books or read them there if you like. It’s going to be called The Library.

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