In one of the strongest memories from my childhood I am an altar boy in the local Catholic church, serving at a special solemn Mass. My job is to hold the large red-leather-bound Missal, or book of prayers, in my hands while resting its top edge against my forehead. The lights shine warm against my body, incense makes the air pungent and a rather large group of celebrants and altar boys roam the sanctuary according to an ancient choreography. The big red book is center stage and receives clouds of reverent smoke from the ritual brass censor. Early in my life I learned that a book can be sacred.
In the intervening years I have bought and borrowed countless books and have created an ever-larger home library as I have moved from place to place. I can chart my life according to the bookstores that have been my source of enlightenment and entertainment. I've made my living writing and marketing books, traveling thousands of miles to talk about them, often speaking in bookstores of all sizes and temperaments. Maybe you get the idea: I love everything to do with books.
Now they say that the book is threatened, to be replaced by e-readers and morphed into multi-media presentations. So, what am I to do? Am I a dinosaur? Am I crippled by nostalgia? Does my wish that the book remain intact and strong take me down the road to irrelevancy? Should I adapt and become more media savvy? Should I blog and create miniature films for Youtube? Should I give up the life I have led, making a living and making sense of my life by books?
One problem I have with e-books is that they are not books. They only look like books. Dictionaries say that the word "book" goes back to the word "beech," the wood first used for writing down ancient runes. A traditionalist like me would say that you need paper or another wood product to have a book.
In our modern way of thinking, we believe we can separate the contents of a book from the material it's written on and bound with. We think of a book as information. But anyone who loves books knows that the book is what you hold in your hand and put on a shelf. A library honors a book and easily turns into a sacred place, not too far distant from the sanctuary where I held the big red book against my little head.
When I sign a book -- a ritual in itself that I take seriously, almost in a priestly manner -- people sometimes tell me that they haven't read it yet. I always say, "It doesn't have to be read to be a book. Just keep it in a special place and look at it from time to time." People know what I mean. I have many books I've never read and have no intention of reading. But I keep them enshrined on my home library shelf and would miss them dearly if they disappeared.
For me, a library is a kind of chapel. Spiritual traditions are not as abstract as people think. They are not all about creeds and beliefs. They are concrete, physical, tangible and sensual. There was nothing abstract about that moment in my memory holding the heavy book painfully against my skin as I held it stiff and formal. A library is not an information center, it's a chapel for books. Your home library, as small as it might be, is also a chapel made sacred by the book itself.
I hope libraries don't become museums for the old technologies of the book. I don't think they have to be. I hope we keep producing books. I think they can co-exist with e-readers because they are not just about information. They're like pianos and oil paintings -- superseded in some ways by new technologies, but not obliterated. I hope that bookstores will discover how to honor books and continue to sell them. Maybe our pragmatic use of the e-reader, easier to travel with and fun to play with for its media potential, will shift, and soon we'll realize what is so precious about a book. Maybe a book is easier to ensoul than a piece of electronic technology.
I have no compunction about becoming a Luddite. In fact, I have strong inclinations in that direction. But I also love technology. I follow the developments of the iPad rather closely and with considerable longing. Soon you may even catch sight of me holding an e-reader in my hands, especially if I'm on a jet heading for Ireland, where the weight of my books is a problem. But on almost any day of the year you'll find me in my home library, at peace, in a contemplative mode, like an altar boy, in a cloud of remembered incense, lovingly honoring my books.
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