If I get twenty-nine pages into a book two things have happened: I’ve made it through the introduction and I’ve just about reached the first set of endnotes.
Obviously that says a lot right there about my definition of “a book.” My definition has never had anything to do with ink, glue, paper, cloth, or cardboard. And that’s not a new thing for me, a post e-reader phenomenon or part of some solidarity on one side or the other of the perceived Amazon vs. brick and mortar bookshops celebrity death match. (Ooh, can we do a little Claymation skit of Sir Francis Bacon braining David Sedaris with a Nook, while David fights Sir Francis off with a quill pen that keeps needing to be mended? I’m going to call my brother when I finish this piece.)
I have been having this argument since Hewlett-Packard made its own operating system and Wang was a fairly innocuous word in the secretarial bullpen, so there was little in the way of conversation about the Evil Technological Assault On The Sanctity Of The Book. I was having this argument in 1989 or ’90, I can’t remember which and I don’t keep that stuff on my resume any more because it makes me old. I had a job for something less than a year as an editorial assistant with a small journal published for the antiquarian book trade. Those are the lunatics who read the back page of the Times Book Review on Sunday and are willing to pay eleven thousand dollars for a copy of Death in the Afternoon which Hemingway smutched* with his thumb after peeling an orange.
|WT I.ii.121||[Leontes to Mamillius] hast smutched thy nose?|
Rare books. Sometimes signed, sometimes just nice and old, or part of a ridiculously small print run; wartime books whose press plates were melted for scrap and have never been reset since. Also, just plain beautiful books — works of art in tooled leather, gilt edges, engraved end-pages, hand-stitched. I was only a year or so out of graduate school and most of my books were Signet paperbacks with cracked spines and plenty of blue ballpoint underlining. (No post-it tape flags yet, and no roller-balls.) The people at the magazine thought I didn’t actually own any books, but I thought I did, because otherwise a) what had cost me (actually my parents) so damn much at the bookstore twice a year; and b) why was there no room on my shelves?
Note the sag on the American Studies shelf. It’s gotta be the Melville.
As far as I was concerned, I owned books in the best way possible. Mortimer Adler, in his How to Read A Book, describes the process of writing on the pages and carrying on a conversation with the author in the margins as truly “possessing” the book. Whereas my employers and co-workers would forgo the opportunity to read the text for the chance to own a book they couldn’t open without Mickey Mouse gloves, I wanted the text and didn’t care how I got it. Now I got pickier when I was making my own choices instead of going by the syllabus and the prices, and inevitably I would pay a couple of extra dollars to get a trade paperback edition where I would stand at least a chance of a preface, commentary, or, please God, endnotes. But even so, I didn’t care if the cover were missing or if there were little yellowish-orange “Used” stickers all over the spine and “You just saved a bundle buying Used Books!” stamped on the first page.
The only book I have ever actually cherished for its physical properties is a 1974 copy of Sculley Bradley’s The American Tradition in Literature, Fourth Edition, Volume 1, which had been owned by one of my professors. After he passed away his wife and son graciously let his students divvy up his books. So I have his marginalia on the letters of Benjamin Franklin and on Walden. The book just automatically falls open to page 1241. “Yet the Middlesex Cattle Show goes off here with eclat annually, as if all the joints of the agricultural machine were suent.(9)”
So I happen to think it quite natural that the physical aspects of textual transmission would change, and that the definition of “book” never would. For me, a crummy PDF or a blurry photocopy, say of a journal article from a thirty-five year old issue of Studies in Short Fiction, is just as useful to my research and learning, and maybe more so, than a nice faux-leather Collected Works of O. Henry (although I’ve got one of those too).
Book is text, and, for me, annotated text. Edited text. That’s why I read introductions and so often get bogged down in them. That’s why page 29 is often the last page of the first chapter or the first essay or the first Learning Unit. When the prompt today said pick up the nearest book and flip to page 29, I could have easily reached across my desk for a hardcover or a trade paper or I could have flicked the touchscreen of my Kindle to whatever book was first on the carousel, and it was all the same to me. The quality of literature, it turns out, is not strained by its presence in digital form. There I was on my super-duper 21st century electronic whizbang gizmo which is going to, apparently, destroy the act and art of reading and permanently disable the book lover, and I opened the book (flick of the thumb) and flipped to page 29 (two drags with the index finger) and guess what the top of the page said?
Yea, this electricity thing is just going to kill scholarship, I can tell you.
n.b. Daisy-Dog tried to get her butt into the picture of my American Studies shelves but I cropped it out. (jm)
(9.) Usually, “suant.” US and English dialect meaning “smooth,” “in order.” (sb)