Friday, April 22, 2016

What makes a book a book?

A "text" existing only on a screen and in the mind is not, to me, a book.
Wendell Berry, My Bookstore

Wendell Berry
If you or I were to say something like that, it wouldn't mean much. Nobody would take us seriously. But when celebrated poet and novelist Wendell Berry says it, it's worth paying attention to.

I have sometimes used the phrase "real book" to distinguish between something printed on paper and something, even if it's the same something, reproduced on a Kindle, iPad, CD or whatever. Every month LibraryThing presents a list of newly published books that will soon be available for members to review. You can indicate those that appeal to you and, if you are lucky, you might win a copy. Those at the bottom of this list are identified as ebooks. I always ignore these. If I'm going to win a book, I want it to be a real book, something I can hold in my hand and, later, put on a shelf. I have read a few ebooks and listened to quite a number of books on CD and, years ago, on tape. These were books in my mind, but yet not quite. They are like artificial Christmas trees. They serve the purpose, but are not quite the real thing.

Hear what else Berry has to say on the subject: "To me, it is not enough that a book is thought realized in language; it must also be language further realized in print on paper pages bound between covers. It is a material artifact, a thing made not only to be seen but also to be held and smelled, containing language that can be touched, and underlined with an actual pencil, with margins that can be actually written on. And so a book, a real book, language incarnate, becomes a part of one's bodily life."

Wendell Berry uses the phrase "real book." too, I'm glad to see. Other phrases that catch my eye are "thought realized in language," which is true even of any spoken sentence, and "language incarnate," which refers to words taking physical form. It was a big step when mankind moved from just "thought realized in language" to "language incarnate." To many, especially younger generations, it seems like another big step to be moving on to language on screens.

David Denby's new book Lit Up, one of the recent review books I've received through LibraryThing, examines the difficulties faced by teachers trying to teach literature to today's teenagers. He quotes one boy, perhaps speaking for his generation, saying, "Books smell like old people." Thanks to an inspired teacher, this same boy was soon not just reading real books but engaging in literary discussions with classmates. Even so, it would appear that those of us who agree with Wendell Berry on what makes a book a book are in a dwindling minority.

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