The Physicality of Books

Stephen Carter, novelist (The Emperor of Ocean Park) and Professor of Law at Yale, asks “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” in the March 21st The Daily Beast. His question is not entirely facetious. In fact, he is deadly serious and says books are critical to the future of American life, surely just as crucial as some of the current beneficiaries of those monstrous bailout sums. He writes:

Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.”

Against the emerging background of the digital revolution, Carter is making an important point. He is suggesting that the sheer physicality of a book is crucial, that books are not simply words. In contrast, to an e-book, a printed book has a place on the shelf, the library shelf or the one in your home, a place that is different in several respects from the virtual place it has in cyberspace.

All of us are aware that the places where books can be felt and touched are rapidly diminishing. Bookstores, especially the small independent ones, are closing at a rate that is distressing to anyone who cares deeply about the pleasures they bring. The same is true for the public libraries that are shutting down and those within our universities and colleges that are being transformed from places to read and peruse books to banks of radiating computer stations. And then there are the book publishers themselves, some of which are closing up shop, while others are drastically cutting back on the number of books they publish. Carter is right: the book world needs a bailout stimulus that is every bit as deserving as the banking, insurance, or automotive sector. He writes:

“In a library, you can stand beside the shelf and run your finger along the spines. You can feel the book-ness of what has been written. It is a very unsophisticated reader indeed who conceptualizes the library principally as a place to obtain information. A library is a shrine to the book. When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important, only its information content matters.”

Carter argues this is a serious mistake, that a book is more than the words on its pages. Because it is a physical object and takes up space on a shelf, we can run our hand over it, pick it up, explore its pages and be surprised by what we find. And we can do the same with all the others placed nearby. By saying this he is clearly stating that there is an important difference between the book as a physical object and the one it becomes in electronic form. His argument here is more complex than the matter of a bailout or physicality of the book so will be reserved for another day.