Friday, February 11, 2011

On Books

Modern technophiles have been predicting the doom of books as we know them: the death of folios and quartos, hardback and shinning paperbacks. They envisage that in a few decades books are going to be a thing of the past and e-readers like Kindle, etc., would become the primary source of bookish delight. The steady rise in the market of wireless reading devices are pointing to the fact that people of our century prefer to travel light; the weight of heavy tomes is too much to carry about, instead they prefer to have them all compiled in a sleek, shiny pamphlet like device which they could conveniently use. I agree that I am myself thinking of buying such a device, still I cannot get over the old bookish feeling; can a wireless device, I wonder, replace the tactile feeling of paper on hand, the smell of antiquity laden in pages stored for a long time in a shelf, the yellowish corners, the bold letters? Is the intense wish for convenience robbing us of all that we held true for centuries? Is the biblioclasm brought on by the tech-revolution, the sudden infernal cataclysm, finally killing the tradition of reading books the way they are naturally meant to be read. Are we, maddened by a sudden concentration of technological power, forgetting the great history that spreads behind us of inscription and what it had meant for us? 

William Caxton in 1476 printed the first book, and since then the lamp of literacy began to spread its light throughout. Before the advent of the printing press manuscripts were written by hand and preserving books had been a laborious task. But as soon as people learned the art of printing, they took advantage of technology to preserve wisdom. Judging from this angle, the rise of wireless devices sound sane, even justified; it becomes a case of passing the baton. Technology today, however, is highly vacillating, a new gadget becomes defunct in only a few months, in such a circumstance can we trust the irresolute hands of technology to guard the nobility of the thing that mattered to us most -- our books. What will happen in a few years, I ask. Possibly newer technology will arise. We will discover new ways to read, new gadgets will overtake old devices, and the weight of manuscripts will be reduced to a zero. If such a thing happens we shall have to accept the shift with open arms, nevertheless, we will regret the absence of certain things that reading in the traditional sense entailed.

Books mold us. They create our character and externalize our brains. Take a look at the books you have acquired over the years; don’t you think that those tomes have a story to tell? The shift from fairy tales to comics, from science fiction to Shakespeare, from love lyrics to essays; in other words from childhood preferences to titles chosen in maturity testify to a growing mind. The presence of old books is reassuring; their smell almost motherly. Without your direct acknowledgement, your old books have become one with you, and they have stayed with you through thick and thin guarding you with the warmth of the knowledge they have poured on you.  In a room surrounded by books -- torn, smelly, and old -- you tend to feel more at home than in an empty house with only a shelf displaying a wireless device. The pride in flaunting the collection you have laboriously gathered over the years is nothing short of sensational. I wonder how modern gadgetry can replace this satisfaction.

Physical presence of books in our lives goes deeper than we think. When I first came to USA from India several years ago, I felt lonely and friendless; and in my lonesome read a book called Namesake written by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is a novel about an immigrant Bengali woman and how she coped with the transition from a traditional family life in India to a nuclear existence in USA. Her story read like my story; I felt that the author has emphatically written my history and my future. And I remember holding the book close to my heart drawing strength from it to survive in an alien landscape. I still have the book, and the even though I haven’t studied it in a while, I feel a strange, almost familial attachment to it. How an electronic book can replace this feeling, I wonder.

As I was browsing through my collection of books yesterday, sorting them, choosing the ones to keep and discarding the titles I thought I wouldn’t need anymore, I couldn’t help but feel a little perturbed. The logical part of me dictated that I must discard certain titles since I couldn’t carry it all back to India, assuring me that these days bookeries in India carry all kinds of books; still I felt sad thinking what hands would sift through the pages of my discarded books, what hands would imprint their marks on them. I hoped they went to worthy hands that would love and treasure them. Still all is a surmise now. Shakespeare was true when he said in sonnet 73 the following:
 This thou perceivs’t, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long

To me the thought of leaving behind the books that have comforted me in lonely hours, matured me when I ran to them frustrated by the unceasing hum of the laptop, embraced me and taught me, is similar to leaving behind a part of me.  Still it is satisfying in a way to think that the fragments of the moments of triumphant absorbing of written wisdom will remain with me, half forgotten, half remembered, forever.

The wireless devices available in the market may include the substance of the books, but the emotional weight of my once owned library, their physical evidence would nowhere be found. The fickle newbie technology will yield brilliant magic tricks, one outwitting the other, and, in the middle of it all,  will try to try to eat away our love for books, but without books we are a set of wayward travelers with nothing to glue us to our foundation; without books  we "might melt into the airwaves, and be just another set of blips."

  Reference: Due Considerations by John Updike