Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Weight of a Real Book

A little while ago, I found a really nice quality copy of the complete collection of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" novels. (Most only know Last of the Mohicans from that series.) I recently bought it in a small antiques and second-hand book shop in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a quaint former coal town in none other than Carbon County. The book cost me ten dollars.

Here it is (forgive me for the less-than-mediocre photos): 

I am currently reading The Deerstalker, the first adventure (chronologically, in terms of his fictional experiences, not by publication dates) of Natty Bumppo. It is always good to step back into a literary history into an earlier era of novels (in this case, the 1820s) when men exchanged long monologues at gunpoint or in the middle of frenzied melees; when realism came second to philosophy. It does require some inner reprogramming and patience, though. And one must always keep in mind that the sights that are described at sometimes laborious length by Cooper would have been fresh and astounding to a reader who had never ventured out of his own neighborhood, let alone into the deep American woods. It must have been jaw-dropping for a nineteenth century person to read about these things that you and I have seen in movies (or in person) our whole modern lives, easily traveled...

But what really occurred to me while reading this, is the history of the physical book, itself. It is no secret that I am an e-reader avoider. I don't begrudge anyone the benefit of the e-reader and I judge them not. For me, though, reading a book on an e-reader is completely unattractive. This, of course, comes down to mere preference. Carry on as you will. 

One thing, however, that one will never "feel" with an e-reader is the physical history of the book. This copy of the Leatherstocking novels is sixty-one years old, having been printed in Tennessee in 1954. I have no idea how it ended up on a bookshelf in Jim Thorpe, Pa. in 2015, but I can feel the energy of the book's travels as I turn the pages, in my house in southern New Jersey. Were the chances of this book having made it into my house inevitable or were they improbable? Depends how one feels about fate. (All I know is that if my wife had called me to see a cool antique bottle in the back of the shop at precisely the right time, that book would still be on the shelf and might have remained there for decades.)

Either way, the book is considerably older than I am. It has been in the hands of other people. It has deafly heard the conversations of thousands who didn't know it was listening. It has been ventured into by other minds and other imaginations that have sculpted its characters into their own personal visions. It has been touched, enjoyed, hated, or tossed aside in disinterest by God knows how many people...

And, now, it waits for me, on a table, next to my reading chair, on a rainy day in October. Tonight, I will pick it up, feel its weight and turn the thick pages. For me, that is important. Sure, I am personifying a book. But if you reduce it to the simplest level, a book has weight, texture, scent and presence. An e-book is just a coagulation of light. For me and for many others, a book isn't just its ideas; it's a physical presence in my life; it's a thing with an experience and a journey that doesn't end with me. It will live on after I am gone, but part of me will remain in its pages. 

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