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.