Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
January 24th, 2011

Between the Covers

On loving books in a digital age



In the last week, two different people have asked me if I have any interest in owning a Kindle. My answer both times was a slightly softer version of “when hell freezes over.”

It’s not that I’m morally opposed to e‑readers. I don’t see them as the spawn of Satan, or anything like that. It’s a style thing; if you like to read that way, more power to you. I just happen to be pretty nuts about yesterday’s style: old-fashioned, paper-and-cloth books that you can pick up and hold in your hand.

Why? For one thing, reading is an imaginative and mental experience, but it’s also a sensual one. Think of people who love the smell of new cars and you know how I feel about books. I savor the aroma of new cedary paper, the dark, pungent smell of the ink. I bury my face in the pages like I would in a bouquet of flowers. When I open a book, my fingers read it, too. Sometimes the paper is blindingly white and smooth and even cool, like porcelain; at other times it’s rougher and slightly lumpy, like the lined paper I used to use in elementary school. Registering these differences is a very satisfying part of the reading process for me. And I don’t think it’s strange to want something that engages the mind to engage the senses as well. There are strong parallels to my faith here. There’s no denying that Catholicism is an extremely sensual religion, with the fragrant curls of incense, the round rosary beads, the dry crackle of the host on the tongue. A lifetime of being Catholic has taught me that things I can feel and smell and taste really do awaken and underscore important truths. Reading, like faith, seems most powerful when it’s both a spiritual and a bodily experience.

Reading, like faith, seems most powerful when it’s both a spiritual and a bodily experience.

That said, I’m not immune to all of the arguments in favor of digital reading. My cousin Lisa told me that she loves her own Kindle because it helps her downsize. And I get that; I really do. My own little house is drowning in books, so much so that I’ve started a second row on my bookshelves, the literary equivalent of double-parking. So the downsizing argument… well, it does tempt.

But it only tempts to a point. When it comes to interior design, I happen to think that books add immediate interest to any room. And you can tell a lot about someone by what is in his or her bookcases. A scan of my own shelves reveals me to be a woman who flirts with poetry, once had a deep love affair with modern drama, and remains forever wedded to the English classics. My books take up space, no question, but — call me crazy — getting rid of them almost seems like losing myself.

Plus every book is a memory. There’s my literally disintegrating copy of The Catcher in the Rye, the one book that has followed me to every place I’ve ever lived, both domestically and abroad. I still have Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I read in college, never quite shaking the feeling that this Catholic girl was doing something downright daring. The historical novel Katherine reminds me of the miscarriage I had before my first son was born, a dark time when I tried to forget myself in another woman’s loss. Then there’s the book of children’s poetry, given to me for my First Holy Communion in 1981. I open it and I’m once again hearing my Uncle Ken read “Jabberwocky” to me as I marvel at the wild imagination of Lewis Carroll, a writer who even made up his own words. These books are souvenirs of my past. They mark my travels through childhood, through romantic breakups, through graduate school, through crises of faith, through pregnancy, through anxiety, through happiness, even through the underrated unspectacular rhythms of daily life. How could I give them up?

Though I respect the green argument that digital books mean less paper and more trees, I can’t help but feel that turning a tree into a book is more than a fair exchange.

And I love books because they make tangible that most intangible of things: ideas. Words and stories have changed me profoundly throughout the years, and I can’t help but feel that they should take up space, almost as a marker of their importance. And though I respect the green argument that digital books mean less paper and more trees, I can’t help but feel that turning a tree into a book is more than a fair exchange.

You may change your mind someday, my husband warns me. And he may be right. But when I think about what I’d lose with digital reading, I keep circling back in my memory to one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a first edition of Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, my college graduation gift from my parents. I know the book represented a financial sacrifice on their part, but I also know why they gave it to me: because they too believe that there is something almost holy in the very nature of a book. When I sit down and open the small red cover, the pages smell deliciously of age and old libraries. I look at the name MISS BEALE, written in neat cursive on the flyleaf, the first S looking like an F. I envision this Miss Beale in 1846, slipping home from the bookseller’s through a snowy street in London, dodging carriages, eager to get home and draw off her gloves and lose herself between the covers of her new novel.

And as I sit here in my living room over 150 years later, thinking of the big voyage this little book has made, I get a chill of the very best sort. Whoever Miss Beale was, she and I have something in common. We both touched a book that has, in turn, touched us.

Originally published on January 24, 2011.

The Author : Ginny Kubitz Moyer
Ginny Kubitz Moyer is the author of the award-winning book Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area and blogs at randomactsofmomness.com.
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  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    I love books. My personal library has over 2,000 volumes. My bookshelves have, in many places, books stacked in front of other books, and I have boxed and stored many volumes as well to free up shelf space. But there comes a time when physical space is pretty much at a limit. I don’t have room for more bookshelves, and I intend to keep reading, so my husband and I got each other a Kindle for Solstice/Channukah/Saturnalia/Christmas/Yule. I still will get more books, but only ones in which the graphic elements are important. (And even that will be pushing it. Guess I’ll have to be giving away more books, too!) The Kindle is okay; I really don’t have a problem with it. It’s the stories I want, anyhow.

  • Jan

    by the way, my husband bought me a kindle for chanukah last year and the only thing i have read on it is a copy of “The New Yorker” magazine. i cannot get away from books. i am also a writer and i hope someday to be published in a ‘real’ book. enjoy them while you can.

  • Mark L

    I agree completely about the tactile and aesthetic experience that comes with reading a paper book. However, I also own an e-reader and love it. In my case, choice between digital and traditional books is not either/or but both/and. I originally got the e-reader (a nook, by the way; I don’t like Amazon’s proprietary format) because as a military reservist, I take several short trips a year. I got tired of schlepping around anywhere from 3 to 5 books for a week or two. The e-reader allows me to take more than enough books for a short or long trip in a device weighing a fraction of what a single trade paperback does. Also, the instant gratification that comes being being able to buy a book in seconds, anywhere is wonderful.
    That being said, my home is still stocked with shelf upon shelf of books, and always will be. Not only do I have a deep-seated aversion to getting rid of any book, I continue to buy paper volumes. The nook isn’t a replacement for paper books; it’s just another way to read.

  • Jan

    I too live in a house surrounded by books nestled in their numerous bookshelves. I too love the physicality of books. I have two or three books around the house which I am in the process of reading (short story collections, a novel) and I never leave the house without my book of the moment, into which I have tucked my most important pieces of paper. My book is also my briefcase, or an extension of my purse. I am Jewish, not Catholic. But the sentiment is the same. I love reading. Love studying. Love REAL books. Thanks for this lovely lovely article.

  • Joseph

    I don’t own an e-reader; however, I wouldn’t mind having one. When it comes to books that I read for fun (ie.Spy books or mystery novels), then I don’t mind using an e-reader for that. But books that requires me to engage in it (ie. my theology or psychology studies), especially when I make annotation notes on then, then I need book. The e-reader is also great for any Catholic prayers or devotions, but I don’t think I would replace a bible for one.

  • Janine

    I wholeheartedly agree with you… and Lisa. The sensual experience is something not to be disregarded. And I can’t imagine that 150 years from now my descendants will have the archaic technology to enjoy my digital library. But e-readers put literature literally at my fingertips (thanks to the iPhone) and I read so much more now that it’s immediately accessible. And there’s the fact that some books are only published digitally – but that’s a topic for another article. So at the moment I’ll continue to enjoy both paper & digital books… and try diligently to track down paper editions of my favorite digital experiences!

  • http://www.RoseMattaxLCPC.com Rose

    I’ll never go digital either–I don’t think (that save-a-tree argument is really compelling). But I’ll tell you one thing I’m thankful for…the IBreviary on my Droid! I was in eastern Europe for three weeks this summer, and I was able to follow the mass readings every day, as well as follow the Breviary as much as I wanted to. Beats lugging four or five big books around the world!

    Rose Mattax

  • Stephanie

    I too used to be completely against e-readers, for the same reasons you mention here. Nothing can replace the feeling of of turning a real page or the smell of fresh pages, which you put so much more eloquently here.

    However I have to say I was persuaded over the holidays on a few points. I love the dictionary function on most of the e-readers, I’m constantly having to jot down the words I don’t know on a piece of paper and hoping I don’t lose it or forget to look them up.

    I also learned that writers get more profit from their writings with e-readers than with printed books, which ultimately made me “ok” with e-readers. I respect authors for the work they put into books, regardless of whether or not I end up liking them, and want the artists to get as much profit as they can.

    A great article though on why it’s so hard to make the switch. Thank you!

  • katie

    I got goose bumps imagining your parents procuring the book for YOU and you receiving that as a gift. Wow!A treasure of the first order for a book lover like you.

  • Amy

    I feel like you just wrote the words of my heart! Different book titles, same sentiment. So lovely. Thank you.

  • Therese

    Love the analogy to Catholicism; I could almost smell the mysterious comfort of old books as I read this. Thanks!

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