Timothy Young | Essays

Books Matter

I recently gave a talk to a library group about why the printed book still matters. I had been asked to address the subject of “Books in a Digital World,” but I chose to focus much more closely on the characteristics of printed objects that are not effectively represented in facsimile. That is: what cannot be captured in a scan.

I’ve been carrying this list in my head for years, adding to it one reason at a time. In my profession, as a librarian and a curator, this list (of which what follows is only a portion) functions as an apologia pro vita mia—rational defenses for the continued existence of the printed codex—and my involvement with them.

Ten Good Reasons the Book is Important

1. It is a piece of technology that lasts.
The codex is one of the longest-lived of all technologies. It has been improved-upon—but changed only slightly—over the centuries. Movable type printing has been around since the 1450s; the codex form has been in use for as long as 2000 years. These are extremely durable tools and forms.

2. It needs very little, if any, extra technology to be accessed. 
(Ignoring, of course, that terrifying Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough to Last,” in which the last man alive on Earth breaks his eyeglasses… .) Other media demand devices to be deciphered. Yes, printed information is coded, via language and graphic systems of representation. But in general, these are codes that are managed by human eyes, hands, and brains—tools we carry with us.

3. The book retains evidence.
These forms of evidence include: notes; names of owners; annotations. These all help us understand how books functioned as possessions and learning tools, and how they traveled from one owner or reader to another. As a librarian, I don’t advocate writing in books, but I am excited when I find an eighteenth-century American schoolbook that contains handwriting exercises on its pages.

4. Books are true to form. 
Books are meant to be seen and read in specific ways. Many early books had sections that were intended to be viewed as two-page spreads—not isolated from each other, as often happens in online viewers. The same observation can be made about scrolls; their presentation was key to how they were interpreted. We can’t forget that reading can have a ceremonial function.

5. Each copy of a book is potentially unique
… at least up through the second industrial age. Changes to texts often show up in different copies of books that are assumed to be identical. Printing involved mainly manual processes until the end of the nineteenth century—sometimes necessitating stop-press corrections. These kinds of changes can teach us about the genealogy of printed works. Many digital scanning projects are necessarily limited to the selection of the “best” copy of a book, which, once scanned, stands in for every other copy.

6. Printed items are consumable goods …
… in passive and active ways. Some classes of books and printed objects are meant to live only a short while—to provide information and then be discarded. Lucky for us, when copies of such ephemeral items have managed to survive, we have data that record phenomena that can be extremely difficult to document otherwise. Such is the case with flyers, brochures, tickets, posters, and other single-sheet printed items.

7. A book is an object fixed in time. 
A book can tell us about its status in history. If we look through first editions of Moby Dick or Leaves of Grass, we find that they give away information not only about when they were created, but also about the worlds in which they were created, by way of advertisements, bindings, the quality of their paper, and watermarks on that paper. Such components are often not captured by scanning or are flattened out to make them of negligible use. In Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold—his saga about how libraries microfilmed runs of newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s and then discarded them—one of his chief complaints was that the filmers skipped advertising supplements and cartoons: things that had been deemed unimportant. 

8. A book can be an object of beauty and human craftsmanship.
Those qualities alone are of significant value.

9. When you are reading a book in a public place, other people can see what you are reading. 
Reading is generally a private activity, but it also has social functions. Even when we hold a book up in front of our faces, we are telling the world what we’re reading—or in the very least—that we are reading a book (rather than tweeting about the books we wish we were reading … ).

10. The Internet will never contain every book. 
The growth of information is exponential—with vast universes of new data being created online every day. Many swaths of old information—in the forms of books, magazines, and pamphlets—will never make it online. There are projects and grants for scanning specific topics—English eighteenth-century provincial newspapers, Latin American imprints—but significant bodies of work of minor stature will never make the cut.

Homepage image: James Gillroy, Old man with book and candle, H. Humphrey, No. 51 New Bond Street. Courtesy General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Comments [1]

Great points. And a couple more: books are multi-modal. They have tactile qualities (paper texture, binding materials and structures); they emit sound (pages turning, covers slamming shut, paper tearing); they smell (that new book scent, ink, also old and musty odors), and some might even have flavor, but I wouldn't know from personal experience! Another compelling reason to honor books' materiality: should we trust knowledge, communication, and literary and artistic expression to "the cloud," where ownership, access, location and control are unresolved issues?

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