The Book is a Fantastical Thing

I’ve been reading a lot about reading recently, and it struck me the other day that a lot of the scientific research on the topic (at least, what I have read so far) doesn’t care much about the format of what is being read. Most experiments focus on individual words or short-form prose and are interested in either tracking identification of symbols or uncovering a psychological effect (such as Maya Djikic’s recent experiment with fiction and ambiguity). When genre or form are evoked the major criterion seems to be whether the selection is fiction or non-fiction. It seems to me that such an approach misses something about the act of reading by not considering the effect of formatting and presentation of the words, of the spatial and physical setting of the words.

The book has been the most significant of these formats, and even though the physical book (codex, really) has an uncertain future, the idea of the book remains powerful and perception-altering. Whether referring to a text specifically or being invoked generally (as product, relationship, idea), “the book” remains as a mighty notion. It is a compelling, enduring metaphor: a source, a journey, a gateway, a companion, a legacy. It has physical forms that we can point to, embrace, collect, and inscribe with meaning, but it is also a form duplicated on computer screens. The book is a mind-altering, word-transforming concept that for most of its history seemed bound to a certain physical form, but has always exceeded the constraints of that form.

The book is a fantastical thing. Whether it is a physical object or not, it has a presence. It is bounded conceptually but can be used to take our imaginations anywhere. For most of its history the book has been synonymous with a thing, with a codex often made of paper and string with some skin or board to protect it. I love those things; I own about 2,200 of them. I rescue books all the time, books that I might never read but that I cannot bear to see recycled (something that happens very often in my profession as used bookseller). I have an illustrated copy of The Lord of the Rings with profanity scrawled across some of its pages in red marker. I have a paperback copy of Jung’s On Dreams with the first 125 pages completely underlined except for the punctuation marks. I have rare books with terrible damage and bedraggled pocket paperbacks that I read in high school over twenty-five years ago. I have signed limited editions that I have worn out from reading. My love for books is not gentle.

What is so fantastical about books is what they do to me as a person. The fact of possession always gives me a feeling of satisfaction, but what really gets me is what I can find in a book. I can pick up a physical text and be transported back to how it made me feel when I first read it. I can recall through touch and sight where I read the book, how its words ricocheted around in my mind, what revelations and disappointments I got from each passage. Books are touchstones in the world for me.

I love to hold books, to flip them upside-down and think about a passage I just read. For a long time I cruelly dog-eared pages and in graduate school I scrawled marginalia and even — shudder — highlighted some texts, which I profoundly regret now, as if by painting the words in garish colors I was not pointing them out but coating them in some excessive veneer of meaning. Pen marks seem vulgar, while pencil is somehow more acceptable, because it can be changed, erased away or reformed. I don’t mark my books anymore, instead either typing quotations and observations into a netbook or, increasingly, grabbing quotations from electronic copies. But e-books have not, cannot, replace the codex as an object of affection and import to me.

I read a lot of writing in electronic format, but I have only read a few complete books on a screen. I have a difficult time reading on a screen for long, uninterrupted periods of time. I find reading articles and chapters and sections quite easy on a screen, but it is difficult, physically and psychologically, to read a single work in electronic format. I find that I feel a tinge of resentment when I have to read a novel on a screen, as if something is missing in the experience. I feel flitters of confusion, of disengagement, and it becomes a strain to keep reading. And yet, it is a book, but there is something a little less interesting about it.

What makes the book so powerful as experience and source is the combination of physicality, typesetting, constraint, and possibility. That all of these elements can be concentrated in a single format, into an object that exceeds its physicality and produces continual fascination. That fascination is what makes the book so amazing to me, so alluring, what makes each book an invitation. How all those elements combine in my mind, and yes in my heart. I can get sappy about books, and I do so with no hesitation. Books have taught me to think critically, to be empathic, to be discerning, and to expand my dreams and hopes and delusions. Books have disappointed me and angered me and repulsed me too, but that is part of the gamble of letting a book affect you. You have to open your mind to a book and that gives the words a chance to change you in a flood that I rarely find boring.

The book is also fantastical in the deep sense, of making things visible, of not just stimulating the imagination but feeding it, gifting it with not just words but words in a configuration that is finite but vast. You can get “lost” in a book, and yet you can find many things too. I learned about life from books in ways that a short story or a conversation could not convey. I discovered the limitations of the book and through that I sometimes found my own limitations. I found friends and community via the books I loved, and also how books could mislead you if you weren’t careful. Books have been a continuing education, whether they were “just” entertainments or part of a quest for something profound. A new book is an opportunity to discover something I haven’t yet found, and yet, I can re-read an old book and see things I missed the first dozen times. What makes each book so potentially wonderful is that it is another occasion to explore my viewing of the world in concert with someone else’s. That tension and cooperation and divergence, sometimes all at once within the limits of “the book,” is what makes each reading something new and savory, quiescent and invigorating.

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