In Defense of Paper Pages

To Kindle or not to Kindle? That is the question.

I have no quarrel with e-readers. Since I am a die-hard fan of learning, any medium that gets people reading is fine by me. Read on a papyrus scroll or an overhead projector or a Minority Report-esque glass screen, it makes no difference to me. But I have no plans to buy an e-reader.

I don’t just love reading, you see. I love books.

********

When I was in grade school, we lived for a time in a small, rectangular house where the ugly carpet was the exact color of rust. We didn’t own a television. When the weather was nice, I sometimes pedaled around the neighborhood on my bike, but most often I was curled up somewhere in our house, reading from a stack of books. I commandeered a corner of the living room, near a window, and dragged a pillow and a sleeping bag there. Lying on my stomach on the rough carpet, I read the hours away as specks of dust swam in the sunlight.

I owned a precious few books, perhaps thirty, and I read these over and over. Others were checked out from the library – I read those over and over too. I was careful with books, never smashing the covers flat, never turning the corners down to mark my place. Every now and then a paper cover would tear slightly, at one of the outside edges, and I would scotch-tape the rip. I still have many of these books. The strips of tape are yellow and brittle now.

To a shy girl whose family moved often, books were treasured companions, tangible comforts. I loved them as deeply as you could love a pet or a playmate. Then as now, their covers, their particular sizes conjured up the stories inside and the hours I’d spent with them. Some books were fat (I liked those best.) Some were tall and thin. Some had glossy covers, some plain. Some had unusual or pretty artwork on the outside.

My handful of childhood books stayed with me through college and marriage and moving across the country and back again. Along the way, they were joined by lots of other books – more than a thousand by now. In many cases, looking at a particular book makes me think of the person I was shopping with at the time, or the loved one from whom it was a gift.

In the late 70’s, my Dad’s sister occasionally came to visit us during the holidays. She seemed exotic, with her long hair and tall boots and her once-upon-a-time residence in France. Pretty and smart, she remained unmarried in her 30’s, which was not common then. She always came bearing gifts of books. She would read to us in the evenings, with a dulcet voice that broke off into a wonderfully throaty laugh.

One year she brought The Gifts of the Child Christ, a two-book collection of the great George MacDonald’s fantasy stories for children. It would be impossible to guess how many hours I spent poring over those two books, over the next few years. I never picked them up, never looked at the familiar illustration on their gray-edged covers and felt their specific heft, without thinking of my aunt, and those hours by the fireplace.

Those books sit three feet from me, now. Volume One has become delicate – the glue in the binding has failed a little. I keep them on a top shelf and away from my small children. But soon my boys will be old enough to understand these stories. They can snuggle up under my arm and carefully turn the pages, studying the woodcut illustrations at the beginning of each tale. They will be able to tell which ones were my favorites by how easily the pages fall open.

********

While on vacation in the 1990’s, my best friend and I ducked into a bookstore. It was raining. After shaking out our umbrellas we wandered around looking at stacks of books, our wet shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. Susan had recently read a novel that she said I simply had to read. But I don’t like that genre, I said. When she couldn’t convince me, she insisted on buying a copy, and handed it over. (She was right. The Sparrow would become one of my favorite books.) My vivacious friend died three years ago, just before her fortieth birthday. As I write this, the book she pressed into my hand that night lays in my lap. Every time I look at it, I think of her.

Books remind me of the places I bought them. From decades ago, I remember the barn-like Christian bookstore that carried Bibles and frightening tracts and the kid’s serial books that I loved. The store is still in business in my childhood hometown, and still smells like mildewed old pews.

I remember the tiny bookstore in the fancy mall in Atlanta, where they kept the rare books locked behind a glass case. I bought my brother an early edition of Hansel & Gretel there.

I remember the bookstore near the wharf in Baltimore, where I wandered in the evenings while on business trips. The store was in an old factory, with huge exposed pipes hanging overhead. When I’m adrift in a strange city, I seek out the nearest bookstore for comfort. Looking at books piled on tables and wedged onto shelves makes me feel like I’ve arrived home.

I remember the bookstores in nearly every airport I’ve ever been in. I remember bookstores in strip malls, and in Victorian houses by the ocean.

Nowadays most bookstores smell like roasting coffee (which always makes me want to unwind my scarf, even when I’m not wearing one). But I still sometimes pick up books and furtively sniff them, to get a whiff of that papery, inky, heavy smell that whispers, Oh, honey, just wait’ll you get me home. We’re going on an adventure.

Granted, as with humans, a book’s essence is found inside it. I understand that. But people’s faces and voices and smells are evocative of all that we love about them.

For me, it’s that way with books, too.

********

I actually wrote the bulk of this post in 2010, then filed it away. A few months ago, I read this gorgeous piece by one of my favorite writers…and knew I wasn’t alone.

If there is a book that evokes memories for you, I’d love to hear about it!

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19 Responses to In Defense of Paper Pages

  1. Daniel says:

    Perfect. I still have the copy of “Wizard of Oz” I bought when I was two with my own money (well, my mom gave me the money, but I paid for it!). That was over 35 years ago. I don’t think anyone will still have the same e-reader in 35 years. I have books from the 1800s. We are losing part of our history. Thanks for posting this.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      EXACTLY. Love it. Made my way through ALL the Wizard of Oz books in the late 70’s, I believe.

      If you’re on Twitter and I’m not following, let me know and I’ll fix that! 🙂

  2. A typical conversation between my mother and me:

    “Celeste, get your nose out of that book! Honestly, you’re just like Mary Ellen Tippins. Why don’t you go outside and play like a normal child?”

    ‘Well, for starters, Mother,’ I thought, ‘you won’t let me roller skate, swim, or skateboard. I’m a total klutz. There’s a bidding war between team captains before every softball game: old debts get called in to keep me off the teams. And if I ride my bike around the block one more time, I’ll scream.’ But I said nothing, just shrugged, and turned the page.

    Books were my escape. They stoked my imagination and opened my eyes to a world bigger than the small southern town where I grew up. Dr. Seuss was an early love. And Walter the Lazy Mouse. The summer between second and third grade I read The Secret Garden and Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Big books for a little girl. My third grade teacher gave me, at Christmas, a copy of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. Like the young wife in the book, I had very long hair. That story connected in a deeply personal way. We moved but she came to visit us the next year and gave me Island Boy, a book about life on the Hawaiian islands centuries earlier. With this, she threw in a subscription to the Weekly Reader Book Club. I now have an e-reader and love to travel with it. But when I lost my home in a storm, I didn’t grieve for china or furniture. But, oh, what I would give to have my well-worn copy of Island Boy with me now, Miss Wright’s sweet inscription inside the cover.

    So, here’s to Mary Ellen Tippins. We’ve never met; but if we had, it would have been in a bookstore and I would have liked her very much.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Oh man, sweet Celeste…chills.

      Gift of the Magi…one of my favorite stories. We had it in a “Norman Rockwell” Christmas anthology. Which I didn’t retain, but recently…I saw it in a used bookstore and snapped it up for 50 cents, I think. Every time I look at it, I remember childhood Christmases. 🙂

      I love how we are two peas in a pod. XO

  3. jenibullis says:

    Ahhh, a kindred spirit! I also have a love affair with books. I don’t collect them because I have the opposite of the hoarding disorder where I just can’t keep anything, but nothing makes my heart flip flop like a book! I ran across a copy of Danny and the Dinosaur in the library the other day and begged my boys to check it out. Mainly just so I could smell it for awhile since it reminded me so severely of a beautiful library I loved as a child. I do love my Kindle, but along with it are always several books I’m working on. Which makes my husband shake his head in confusion ;-).

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I always used to read one book at a time…but ever since the boys, I have ADD and am usually reading about 4 at the same time!

      My boys love “reading” too. I’m not sure they had a choice…I’ve read to them every day since they were babies. And it’s almost as hard to resist buying THEM books, as it is to resist buying some for me! 🙂 They have their own bookshelf in their room. It’s not full yet…I’m working on it…

  4. Nikki says:

    🙂 I love this! While I don’t necessarily have the nostalgia of books of old, except perhaps the entire collection of Nancy Drew’s mysteries (which I now have no interest in mystery), oh, and Little House on the Prairie…ah…the nostalgia is returning to me… ;), I do remember always having a book in my hand. I just loved to read and still do. Such comfort. 🙂 The stars on my school girl reading charts would threaten to swallow the space for neighboring names.

    I do have the Kindle ap on my iPad, and while it is convenient and I can purchase a book in a flash, I will still actually purchase the real variety (of the same book I’ve already downloaded), because I need to feel the pages on my fingers. And I want to see it on my growing book shelf (I dream of having my own in home library one day) and glance at it years later and revisit them to reflect and see how far I’ve come. 🙂 They are somewhat of a mile marker now as an adult and I always glean more the second or third time around.

    I also always have more than one book on my reading stand at a time. Was just thinking last night that maybe I should write a post about the the stack I have now…they’re always pretty reflective of where I am on this journey. 🙂

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I still have my original set of Little House books. And the Chronicles of Narnia. I never owned Nancy Drew’s, but I checked them out of the library.

      My BIG dream is to have a big enough house some day that I can use a room for a library. Rather than having them scattered in 4 different rooms, as they are now.

      I want to know what you’re reading. Write the post. 🙂

  5. Dad says:

    My dear Cathy, some of my warmest memories of you include a book in your hand, a book in your lap, books on your bed, books snugged next to you in the car. Or the hundreds of times I found you asleep with your covers scattered around, your pillow on the floor, but your beloved book securely clutched in your hand, so tightly it was impossible to remove.
    I believe books, the kind with pages and a cover actually have an aroma, a feel, even a presence and I cant image a house without books all about.
    Last night I fell asleep reading the “The Last of The Breed” for yes the 7th time (although not in the category of the books mentioned in your article) still a warm and familiar friend of mine.
    I am very proud of you, your dad

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I didn’t know I went to sleep with them, but that doesn’t surprise me! Awesome. Yes, I can’t imagine a house without books. If you get a chance, read that post I linked to at the bottom (by Rick Bragg.)

      The Last of the Breed remains the only novel Dan has read since we’ve been married!

      Thanks for being proud. XO

  6. Dan LaGrow says:

    I wish I had half of the love of books that you do…I would be a smarter man. Growing up, we lived out a lot of the adventures most people would read about. Unfortunately, when there were “opportunities” to watch TV, we would stare at it for hours like drunken zombies. Looking back, it was such a waste of time with little to no enhancement of learning…well other than TV trivia I suppose!

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Well, I’m glad that the boys will have the best of both worlds. I’m glad you will push us into adventures. Except for skydiving, etc.

      Thanks for putting up with all the cartons of books every time we move. And for understanding why I love them, even if it’s not a love you share. XO

  7. Judith says:

    Often, especially in the past year as I have been having another go at cleaning out the garage, i think about the books I had as a child and just flat out mourn them. I have no idea what became of them during the several moves of our family. There was a splendid set of children’s poems and fables. The covers were red, I’m sure not real leather, embossed with gold, also not real. Those tales Grandma read to me over and over, as I insisted. Later, I read them myself, memorized them, read them with great inflection and flair. I was my own audience. Sometimes I scold myself for being so silly – missing those books as I do. I wanted to read them to my daughters, and now to my grandchildren – which I don’t even have yet!

    When Anna was eight months old, we all went to London. I was doing research on some gardens. Anna was very happy in a pram with a nice wooly banket as we meandered around Hidcote, Stourhead and Sissinghurst. We went to Harrods and bought the full set of Beatrix Potter books for Anna, along with some lovely reproductions for her bedroom walls. Two months later we were home in St. Louis, and learned that baby Kate would be making us a happy family of four. For three months, as I was almost as sick as Cathy is while pregnant, Anna and I laid about with a box of saltines, a selzer bottle and those beloved, tiny books. Flopsy Mopsy, Jeremiah Puddle Duck and all those silly kittens were our best friends.

    Perhaps because I also love gardens (as did my Father and Grandmother), petals, leaves and soil, it is understandable that I should love books. Pulp is wonderful! I can imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins writing a poem in praise of pulp, as he did of brindled cows and speckled things.
    All this makes me just thrilled again about how God is on the move, weaving the grand tapesty of history, the great dramatic saga of all times. And we, happy little book worms, get to be part of the story. We are, each one, bright little silken threads, spinning our part, our lives all woven together. Like Dad (my brother), I get to be proud. Proud to be the aunt who has a mention in a blog and gets to read the great books that Cathy writes. One of those books will one day be the treasure of another little girl, who will fall asleep with it tightly grasped in her hand.
    Hugs, AJ

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I *still* say you need to write a book. You could even do the illustrations yourself. Make it so. 🙂

      Thanks for fostering my deepest passion. Love your thoughts, above. Love you. XO

  8. Oh my, you’re the perfect candidate to create a Little Free Library. check this out: http://www.jeremystatton.com/little-free-library

    I’m with you. I was collecting them like crazy. Finally I gave about 300 away. Passing on books seems better now if I don’t plan to reread them a good deal.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      That’s a great idea! There are many, by now, that I wouldn’t mind sharing.

      Of course…I couldn’t bear to part with (and possibly lose) my favorites. And THOSE are the ones I really want people to read!

      If I ever won the lottery (which I don’t play), I would create the most fantastic library…with a TRULY quiet space where writers could write.

  9. This is a lovely tribute to books. As my children have married, it’s been fun to pass books along to them for their kids. I also keep some of the collection here for when the grandkids are around. I do like my Kindle, but I much prefer having a book in my hand.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I honestly cannot WAIT until my boys are old enough to read my favorites from childhood…George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, the Ramona books, Pippi Longstocking (would boys like those?), and all the fairy tales and adventure stories…

      The biggest problem with paper books comes when I go on vacation – I always must take WAY more books than I will possibly have time to read. Even now, when my little guys ensure that I get virtually NO reading time at all. 🙂

  10. I’m automatically suspicious of anyone who doesn’t recognize the spiritual difference between digital and paper books. I wrote a post about it: http://thegoodgreatsby.com/2011/05/09/checkmate-kindle/

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