Monday, May 11, 2015

The Sacrificial Love Of Books

Collections & Confessions


What follows is an elaboration of a previous post: “Confessions Of A Bibliophile.”

“Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback.”
John Updike 
Front Cover of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, a Folio Edition (London; 2009) with etchings by Jane Joseph. This 234-page book, with dimensions of 9 inches by 7 inches by one inch, takes up 63 cubic inches and one inch of shelf space on one of my bookcases.
Photo Credit: © Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

There are those who read books; there are those who collect books; and then there are those who both read and collect books and view these as more than physical pages containing stories and knowledge or stories and entertainment. Theirs is a love affair of the heart and mind—the bibliophile. This obsession with books starts at an early age, and only ends with death.

We are here talking about physical books, of the kind one finds with paper pages, bindings and words printed with ink. There are electronic books that have none of these qualities, save convenience. An electronic device is small and can hold dozens of books, which one can access fairly easy. This is no doubt a marvel of engineering and many have purchased such devices to both store and read books. I, too, have such a device, but do not put it to use. I am in this case a hold-out to tradition.

The electronic device holds many books and takes up little space; physical books are singular and each takes up a specific volume of space, usually in its rectangular form or shape. Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man takes up 63 cubic inches and one inch of shelf space; Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene 104 cubic inches and one-and-one-half inches of shelf space, and  Bartlett’s Familair Quotations 148 cubic inches and two-and-one-half inches of shelf space—the books becoming thicker and heavier. Then there are the mufti-volume sets; my eight-volume set of Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes up 10 inches of shelf space (and more than 1,000 cubic inches) and easily weighs twenty pounds—a heavy set. Not something that one would want to lug around for long.

With physical space, or volume, comes mass or weight. Hardcover books are often heavy to lug around, easily weighing a few pounds. So, having a few hardcover books in your briefcase or backpack can easily add ten pounds of weight (a gravitational mass) requiring sufficient energy and work to move. Reading literature can also improve one’s cardiovascular health, yet it becomes harder and less desirable with increasing age and decreasing energy. There are, of course, softcover books, which are lighter and smaller, and also take up less space on the shelf. Even so, they weigh something and do take up space. Two hundred can fill a bookshelf, or is it crammed rather than filled?

I am here making a very good and valid argument for the electronic book reader. Who in their right and sane mind would resist the marvels of modern technology, with all its known conveniences and advantages, including the environmental saving of trees and the personal saving of space? Not so much insane as impractical. Yet, this has little or nothing to do with convenience or the practicality of it all, but with a kind of love and devotion to an idea. It is more than knowledge; it is more than pleasure, although collecting books contains both. It is also about the physical beauty of books, which requires no further explanation to those who understand and appreciate this sentiment or thought of the heart.

One has to eventually come to a conclusion of sorts that collecting books, as it is true in collecting anything of value, has a sacrificial side to it. It not only takes a certain kind of devotion; it takes a certain kind of sacrifice. A devotion to books often leads to a sacrifice of space. Not as serious as other sacrifices (like those of parents to children), perhaps, but a sacrifice nevertheless that places one thing above another in importance. Some say that this is a type of love, and it may well be.

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