Why do we love books so much anyway?

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I’m in the midst of a move at the moment – to the University of Birmingham – which means that I’m going through that thing that we all dread: sorting out my books. The ‘what to bring’ pile must, of course, end up smaller than the ‘what to put in storage pile’, but never seems to get any lower than the ‘I’ll definitely need this at some point in the next two years’ pile. It’s a fascinating but painful process, trying to figure out what’s worth taking, what could be, and what should be boxed, quite possibly never to see the light of day again.

I’d barely begun yesterday afternoon when the questions came. (Well, actually, the match came first, but why let one fascinating story get in the way of another.) Why is there so little fiction? Should I give this back or are the seven years since I borrowed it enough for squatter’s rights? The questions were followed by fascination: where did this come from? Is this even mine? And then of course came the guilt: why did I buy this if I was never going to read it? And, indeed, should I put it into the to-read pile now? 

In the last six months, we’ve all had our moments on Pue’s to extol the virtues of the printed word: a spring-clean, a penchant for second-hand books, and a re-discovery of those long forgotten. But trawling through my own rag-tag collection set me thinking about just what is it that creates the bond between us and our books. You know, the ones that through years of reading, research or teaching have become like an old dog-eared friend that you reach for when times get tough. The ones whose spines are not only broken but obliterated, to the extent that you can hardly read the title anymore. The ones that you open and read passages – even whole chapters – from, simply because they’re that good.

Maybe it’s for the colour – am I alone in finding joy in seeing my books stacked high in a rainbow of design, good and bad (see the photo above)? Maybe it’s for the status – I read too little fiction, but I still know what’s ‘hot’ and what’s not from looking around me on the train. (In vogue: One Day and Alone in Berlin. Move over: Stieg Larsson and We Need to Talk About Kevin.) Maybe it’s fear of the Kindle (other e-readers are available). Or maybe it’s simply the joy of collecting. Step forward this ‘review’ of Geert Mak In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century: ‘if I’d read [the book] entirely on the Kindle I would miss not being able to look at it. If you’ve invested this much time in something you like to be able to see it and touch it.’

As the never-ending (and often incredibly dull) debate about digital versus analogue and the future of the music industry is transferred to the publishing world, it strikes me that the books I love are very much like the records I love. For the mp3, read the library (or Kindle, if I had one) – the place to experience the text without ever really feeling like it’s yours. And for vinyl records, read those dog-eared, broken-spined tomes with turned-down corners and post-it notes nosing out the edges. The books I own are, quite simply, the ones that I couldn’t leave behind.

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6 Responses to “Why do we love books so much anyway?”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Why do we love books so much anyway? Says:

    [...] “I’m in the midst of a move at the moment – to the University of Birmingham – which means that I’m going through that thing that we all dread: sorting out my books. The ‘what to bring’ pile must, of course, end up smaller than the ‘what to put in storage pile’, but never seems to get any lower than the ‘I’ll definitely need this at some point in the next two years’ pile …” (more) [...]

  2. Frank Says:

    I too have a large collection of books mainly acquired at book launches and bookshops. I did promise myself that when I received a signed copy of a book it was incumbent on me to actually read the book whereas a book bought in a bookshop could either be browsed through or read. However, it will be some time before this promise can be made good as I slowly make my way through my ever increasing book launch collection while also reading the bookclub choices of a group I joined some years ago. There are also books in my collection that will in all likelihood neither be read nor browsed through but I still can’t bear to let them go to a second hand bookshop. Finally there are the small number of books purchased partly because the cover was so attractive and I still derive a certain enjoyment from spotting these volumes when I scan the shelves even though these will at best be subjected to a short browse once a year.

  3. Tina Says:

    Great piece, Kevin! Totally agree with you on the way in which ownership of a paper- or hardback book brings a connection (dare I say one of an emotional or even spiritual nature) that isn’t there with the same text read via kindle or other e-reader. It’s because of that connection that I think e-readers, for all their convenience, will never fully replace more traditional publishing formats.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    @Tina I totally agree. It’s about the value that you place on something I think. When something is coveted so much, then it’s better to have the physical object than a series of ones and zeros. Also, as someone said recently, a book doesn’t have to be switched off when the seatbelt sign is on!

    @Frank I think you’ve definitely hit on something we can all relate to there. The pile of books never seems to get any smaller! I can totally sympathise too with your book club dilemma – one of the reasons I’ve never joined one is that I just can’t imagine getting the time to ever read the books properly. I’m sure I’m missing out, but I just don’t have the time.

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