Last week I wrote about librarians’ pet peeves, and how devoted I am to my extensive bookmark collection.
Now it’s time for a few more pieces of reading ‘equipment’ no bookworm should be without. First is a leather book weight, such as this one sold by Barnes & Noble for $9.95. Rather than fumbling around for anything to hold your book open while you take notes – or snack! (I’ve certainly been guilty of propping books open with bottles of water, apples and oranges, or whatever else I had to hand during meals) – use this practical and elegant little device to keep your hands free.
I would also highly recommend acquiring a small travel book light; I use an LED one from Mighty Bright ($13.99) that has a flexible neck and clips onto your reading material. It’s bright but still unobtrusive – perfect for overnight flights, long car rides, and those times when your partner goes to sleep before you.
Anyone who shares their home with books should have at least one pair of really nice bookends to keep freestanding books (that extra ‘shelf’s’ worth on top of a bookcase?) from taking an avalanche plunge. I have two beautiful pairs of geode bookends in addition to these charming ceramic owls (pictured below). What better totems for the collected wisdom contained in a book collection?
If you don’t already use an online book recording tool like Goodreads or LibraryThing (or if you do but still like the idea of recording your past and potential reads on paper too), you might consider getting hold of a reading journal. Although I’m a Goodreads addict, I’m still just as likely to store newspaper clippings of reviews and book teasers in overstuffed envelopes. I also have this Books to Check Out journal with a cover featuring old-fashioned due date stamps, as well as an almost-too-beautiful-to-use Moleskine reader’s journal.
A bibliophile will amass many reference books to turn to time and again for insight into the reading life. A comprehensive English dictionary is a must, supplemented by a biographical guide to authors, such as Who Wrote What When?, and an inspirational lifetime reading menu like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I often pick up my copy of the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to get ideas of new authors and reading centered on themes; it’s structured a bit like one of those “If you liked this, you’ll also love…” schema.
As a particular lover of biographies and of the Victorian period, I also treasure my copies of Great Victorian Lives, a compilation of period obituaries from the London Times, and Lives of the Novelists, John Sutherland’s fantastic anthology of mini-biographies. I love both the rationale for and the execution of Sutherland’s weighty tome. It may be an unfashionable view in the field of literary criticism, but Sutherland believes (as I always have) that an author’s biography sheds light on their writing. “What I’ve written has been sustained by the belief that literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating,” he acknowledges.
Here he offers potted (two- to five-page) biographies of nearly 300 novelists, ranging from the everyday to the obscure – and not always the ones you would expect. For instance, you won’t find Rudyard Kipling, but you will find Mrs. Oliphant, Ouida, and Erle Stanley Gardner, just to name a handful of his writers not normally considered in serious academic literature. Sutherland has always been a champion of bestsellers and genre fiction, with a particular fondness for crime and sci-fi. And it is often some of the lesser known novelists who have the more interesting histories.
It’s a handy book of literary reference, full of useful facts but also loads of delightful trivia. Among these less momentous but more quirky tidbits are: the D.H. Lawrence story “The Man Who Died” ends with the exact same line as Gone With the Wind: “Tomorrow is another day”; and Lawrence wrote Katherine Mansfield what Sutherland calls a “‘get worse’ card” saying “you are a loathsome reptile I hope you will die.” I also enjoyed learning one of George Egerton’s middle names (Chavelita) and William Faulkner’s height and accent (only 5’5”; after affecting a British accent to join the Royal Air Force in World War I, he retained twinges of it all his life). With characters as colorful as these, who needs novels?
A physical relationship
You’ll notice that I haven’t discussed any electronic reading paraphernalia. It’s true that I’ve always engaged with books as physical objects. Reading is a full sensory experience for me, with the smell of the paper and glue and the feel of a spine against my hand just as important as the story I’m immersed in.
I’ve never tried an e-reader. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not opposed to them in principle; in fact, I fully recognize the benefits of using them – not least a reduced environmental impact, as compared to cutting down 32 million trees to produce the estimated 2 billion books printed in the USA each year – but I can’t deny that I doubt my ability to develop any sort of fondness for an e-reader. It would just be a tool, as opposed to a friend.
As a freelance book reviewer I occasionally have to read proofs via a PDF file rather than in print, and I have no problem with this. Online repositories such as the classics library at Project Gutenberg are an incredibly rich resource for the modern reader. I love using search and highlighting functions in a PDF file, and I can see how convenient it must be to be able to pack one’s entire book collection on a lightweight, portable device. Yet I still sense diminished engagement with the work, a barrier between myself and a screen. (As Ali Smith muses in Artful, “What is a screen? A thing which divides.”) So much of modern work life is spent in front of a computer screen anyway; for me, books are a break from the digital realm, as well as a way of reconnecting in some small way with the real, tangible world. After all, when you hold a paper book you’re holding something that was once alive and growing.
All too often the e-book vs. paper book debate seems to ignore the fact that each has its value and uses; perhaps they are meant to be in different contexts or different proportions, but both are important nonetheless. (I’d say this is true of most debates, including, say, science vs. religion – people are so busy thinking about how they can defend their side of the issue that they forget to seek common ground.)
So, in a spirit of concession and compromise: “Why not both? Why can’t we have the benefits of the new and extravagantly expensive digital copy and keep the convenience and beauty and historical testimony of the original books resting on the shelves, where they’ve always been?” Nicholson Baker asks in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.
I’m utterly enamored with paper books and all their trappings. Still, I’m open to debate. Convince me I should get an e-reader. Or, conversely, reassure me that I’m not alone in my love affair with print books. I know I can count on all you bookkaholics to back me up here.