itsabookI found this poster in the window of a Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford.  My attitude was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that my eReader died on the flight across the Atlantic, but I was immediately struck by the simplicity and wisdom of this poster.  While books obviously cannot compete with the technology housed in smartphones, eReaders, and tablets, they still are a great source of comfort and memory for me.  Some of the memories are triggered by things that I have left in my books, such as the bookmark that reminds me of a visit to Powell’s when I was in Portland, or the seat assignment card that reminds me of a trip to China.  Other memories were shaped by my choosing to read certain books at specific times, such as reading Michener’s Hawaii before traveling to a workshop at Pearl Harbor and thereby having a better grasp on the history and culture and language of the island.  I also tend to underline passages that hold great meaning for me; when I later re-read that book, my highlights and notes provide a window into my self that read the volume years before.  I recognize that some of my uses of books could be accomplished by electronic versions, but I know that for me, fingering through my collection of novels produces a sensation that is very different from browsing through the volumes on my eReader.

Melk Abbey library

library at Melk Abbey

William H. Gass wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1999 that echoes my thoughts.  He explains, “We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time.  Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts they’ll be gone.  Off the screen they do not exist as words.  They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit” (November 1999, 46).

Strahov library picture

Theological Hall at Strahov Monastery

Some high school libraries are completely eschewing books in favor of electronic resources, and most public libraries offer more technology training sessions than they do book group meetings.  While I certainly recognize that libraries cannot afford to remain so enamored with the way things have been done in the past that they overlook the changing needs of their patrons, I for one hope that children for generations to come will have the ability to develop a love for books in all their forms.  Gass talks of frequenting the public library while he was in high school and borrowing “a new world.  That’s what a library does for its patrons.  It extends the self.  It is pure empowerment” (48).  Though hard to codify in a five-year plan, I think this is a goal that all libraries should embrace.

Addendum: For a succinct and moving testimony to the power of libraries, read the story of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women’s rights and who spoke at the opening ceremony of the library in Birmingham, England.

As we are coming up on Banned Books Week, it is interesting to consider why books can cause such visceral reactions.  The American Library Association has compiled a list of the reasons various books have been challenged.

Here are some of the books that I have found to be influential:

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Remembrance of Things Past
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • On the Road
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • From Slavery to Freedom
  • Absalom, Absalom
  • A Farewell to Arms
  • The Optimist’s Daughter
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