|Photo by Mattes (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons|
by Peggy Robin
I know there are many advantages to e-books: You can take hundreds of them with you when you travel. There are gazillions of public domain titles that you can download for free. If you’re reading a mystery and you start to wonder if the author had previously referred to a particular piece of evidence, you can search for the word and come up with it instantly. And when you are sitting on a plane and you’re engrossed in the autobiography of some controversial political figure, you don’t have to worry that the fanatic in the seat next to you will lean over and start a long harangue about how that socialist has ruined America. Or you can lose yourself in a weepy romance on the subway and no one will blurt out, “Oh, I loved that book…and I cried buckets when XXX died!”
On the other hand, living in a world of e-books can put one at a peculiar disadvantage -- one that I encountered for the first time, a short while ago. We were at a dinner party at the home of some acquaintances who, now that their children have grown, had sold their rambling old suburban house and moved into a small, chic, downtown apartment. In the process of downsizing, they had given away or sold almost all of their once-extensive library of books. All the titles that are most important to them, all the books that they would want to re-read, they have retained in the form of e-books. Giving up paper books has given them more wall space to work with, but it takes away something, too: it makes it much harder for new people to get to know them. Normally, I would walk into someone’s house and absorb so much important information about who they are, just by seeing what they read, what books they have kept over the years. If they’re the kind of people who save and display the books they’ve loved throughout their lives, I would practically have a whole biography in front of me -- from what they read as small children on up to the latest novel they’ve finished. I would see their coffee table books about the places they’ve visited and loved and most want to remember. There would be well-thumbed and marked-up classics kept from the literature classes they took in college or even high school. I would note the how-to books on hobbies and interests. If they’re the type to buy self-help or advice books, I might even get a glimpse of the challenges they’ve faced in life.
With e-book collectors, though, there’s a large blank – or maybe some multi-colored wall hangings – where those all-revealing bookcases might have been. When a library becomes entirely private, locked away inside a password-protected electronic device, instead of taking up physical space in a room – or multiple rooms in a house – it’s as if the owner of those e-books is wearing a mask over the face. You have to work much harder at getting to know someone when you can’t see what they read.
If I want to get to know this couple better – and I definitely do – I will have to invite them over sometime. They can see all the books I still have lining the shelves of most rooms, and I hope that will start a lively conversation and perhaps reveal some mutual interests that we did not discover through our visit to their book-lessly spare new apartment. I may even lend them something to read … a nice way to continue a budding friendship, as we will meet again when the book is returned. I know there are some e-books that can be “loaned” electronically, but that just isn’t the same as handing over the hardback that you took with you to the mountains, or the dog-eared paperback that you found in the used bookshop in an alley in Brattleboro, Vermont. Physical books have their own personality, too, and when physical books pass back and forth between people, they can affect the relationship in ways that e-books just don’t seem able to do. Well, that’s my theory. We’ll have to see how it plays out in real life.
Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.