—“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Attributed to Cicero (106–43 BC)
One of the statements that resonated with me most at the Why Books? Conference at Radcliffe was “A book collection is an itinerary of one’s life.” Evidently, it was striking to others as well, because after I tweeted that quote, it was retweeted several times. As convenient as an e-reader is, with its ability to hold thousands of novels, it’s considered more of a travel accessory to many people. But a personal book collection is meaningful on many levels. It’s how you learn about people: as one panelist said, “How can you tell who people are if you can’t see their bookshelves?”
A Harvard alumnus who wrote into the Class Report for his 20th Reunion last year discussed the same thing: “My life was always enhanced by interesting books, so as I contemplate the time since college and look to unearth the twists and turns of the path I traveled, I find it helpful to walk into my den and scan the spines of the books in my tall bookcase. These shelves that line an entire wall reveal parts of my past much the same way the layers of an archaeological site offer glimpses of the tools, customs, and wares of a forgotten culture. You are welcome, if interested, to peruse the shelves as I guide you through some of the major strata.” He went on to discuss the phases of his life, represented by the books he bought over the years, from what he bought while traveling after graduate school, to the lower shelves, now occupied by the books for his children. He ended his essay with the following observation: “The final object on the shelf is an e-reader currently loaded with many dozens of novels. This slim electronic device can now hold many times more books than my entire bookcase. The e-book is a convenient and valuable device, but unfortunately, it won’t leave such a readily available physical timeline where I will be able to track my changing interests over time at one easy glance, a small personal casualty of progress. Perhaps our generation might be one of the last to own a large number of printed books, a medium likely to follow in the footsteps of the records and CDs of our youth. As songwriter James Hetfield of Metallica noted, “You know it’s sad but true. . .”
One of the panelists at the conference ruminated on the pros and cons of books vs. ebooks. She said the pleasure of books is sensory-based: the smell and feel of the paper, and the pleasure of perusing the stacks at a library or the aisles of bookstores, is something that many people don’t want to lose. And what of having an author sign a beloved book? A collective gasp went through the audience as the question was raised. It was clear that there is room for both to exist. Robert Darnton, Director of Harvard University Library, affirmed this as he addressed the crowd. “New electronic media and old forms of research belong together.” His vision was for a national digital library to be made available for free, worldwide. A new kind of Library of Alexandria, where anyone could access works in the public domain. An example he used was Herman Melville’s own copy of Emerson’s essays, where Melville had written his thoughts in the margins of the book. With this scanned into a database, people could enjoy the essays along with Meville’s commentary. Professor Darnton ended his talk with a paradox that rings true as the technology evolves and many people retain their love for the traditional book: “Ebook readers will be preferable to books, but books will be preferable to ebooks.”
And to illustrate this point, he showed the following cartoon (link to YouTube):
I will always be one of those people who wants the best of both worlds. I value technology and always seek to explore what is new, be it my smart phone, on which I have three e-reader programs (Aldiko, Kindle, and Nook), or my computer, where I store dozens of scanned books in the public domain—but I will never lose my love for savoring the feel of an actual book. On that beautiful fall day in Radcliffe Yard, it was one of the most important messages I took away with me. It isn’t competition for survival, it’s a need to find a way for both forms to collaborate and co-exist.
—Nov. 14, 2010