Like many people, I love books. I mean that quite literally – I very much enjoy reading, but that is different. I also have an emotional attachment to books as physical objects. I still remember attending a talk when I was 17 where the speaker mentioned in passing that he had a habit of visiting bookshops or libraries when he was feeling upset. The books calmed him down. With a jolt I realised that I was exactly the same. Without shame I have resorted to the calming presence of books in my times of need ever since.
Being around books is good, but being around my books is even better. We have just moved house and one of the things that disturbs me most is that we have only managed to put a few bookshelves up. Most of our book collection, which is reasonably extensive, is sitting in boxes in our garage, and there is something very wrong about that.
And don’t even mention the term “e-reader”. The thought of one brings me out in a cold sweat.
I have just had a moment of clarity about why all this is. In Martin Weller’s excellent new book, “The Digital Scholar”, he spends a chapter considering the lessons from the newspaper and music industries. He is considering why music downloads are such an emotive issue:
“For my generation, you partly constructed your identity around what you owned – your bookshelf, record collection and DVD archive were important aspects of who you were…But for the digital generation this strong link with ownership has been broken.”
I and my wife (whose attachment to books is even greater than mine) belong to the same generation as Professor Weller, and he has completely put his finger on the issue. The books represent who we are. There are a wide range of novels from authors we like, non-fiction works that reflect our various interests – from history and philosophy to gardening and art. The physical books represent, reinforce and display who we are. Any number of files stored on an e-reader could not do the same.
No doubt over time the e-readers will become cheaper, and convenience and price will lead to their triumph. A new generation will define themselves differently, by their social networking profiles I guess. But my generation will, I think, ensure that physical books are around for a while yet. And there are even some signs of hope for the next generation. We have had to put in bigger shelves to accommodate my daughter’s growing book collection.