November 18, 2010

"There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book," says Patti Smith, winning the National Book Award.

Last night, in the nonfiction category, for her memoir "Just Kids" about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe:
Accepting the award to applause and cheers, Ms. Smith — clearly the favorite of the night — choked up as she recalled her days as a clerk in the Scribner bookstore as a young woman.

“I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf,” she said. “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”
Congratulations to Patti Smith. She's a longtime favorite of mine.

I used to hang out in bookstores and buy piles of books. Nowadays, I hang out of the internet, and though I read many, many hours a day, it's mostly on the computer screen. When I've had enough screen time, I like to listen to audiobooks. There are 27 audiobooks in my iPhone at the moment. But I do occasionally choose to have my reading in old-fashioned book form. This year, of the few books I bought, one was "Just Kids."

I'm not really into the romanticism of the physical object that is the book. I think the internet is more beautiful than a book. But is the internet "in our material world"?


Scott M said...

I consume a great deal of the written word (although, like our hostess, I have a large audiobook collection as well...a 45 minute commute will do that). A lot of my news reading is certainly done online, but when I read for recreation, it's always with a hardcover book.

There's simply something soul-satisfying that I cannot quite describe. I just don't get it curling up in a large, soft chair with an electronic device. Ditto to the soul-satisfying effect looking at a large, wall-covering bookshelf full of tomes I've actually read. You don't get the same effect with a small piece of technology.

When my grandfather died, I had occasion to walk through his study and look at the books he had collected over the 80 years of his well-worn life. Would I have had the same emotional experience simply sitting down and rifling through his "files" as my grandchildren might do if I converted wholly to electronic media? I don't think so.

lucid said...

Patti Smith is a moving and beautiful person, and her album Dream of Life is probably the greatest album of adult life that there is.

KCFleming said...

" I think the internet is more beautiful than a book."

The internet is ephemeral, like patterns in sand; a fragile beauty.

Some prefer marble statues to one made of electrons. Touch and smell favor an actual flower over a screencaptured image of one.

virgil xenophon said...

Boy ScottM and Pogo have said it all.. TOTALLY agree!

There is also the fact that books, magazines, newspapers, etc., are true "Random Access" stores of knowledge that may easily be selectively browsed--pages skipped, etc.--in a way that the internet cannot be where one is forced to serially scroll thru mountains of pagination to get to items one seeks or strikes one's fancy. Unlike a physical "analog" "real-world" book,
one can't easily go back a few pages or even a few chapters to re-read a passage without a time-consuming trudge thru each and every page or a maddingly long scroll on a PDF.

The Crack Emcee said...

Is the internet "in our material world"?

Of course it is - except to luddites.

It's an entire library - with links!

Scott M said...

It's an entire library - with links!

Until the EMP...

KCFleming said...

...or the blue screen of death.

Or the internet service is down.

Or your teenage son is hogging the only computer.

Paddy O said...

"I used to hang out in bookstores and buy piles of books. Nowadays, I hang out of the internet, and though I read many, many hours a day, it's mostly on the computer screen."

Oddly enough I hang out on the internet and buy piles of books.

Amazon Prime Student makes this all so easy. Plus, with Kindle book prices seemingly the same as printed, I'd rather have some physical product that would last.

Althouse, I just had the image of you as the bespectacled reader who, finding yourself alone after some disaster, finally has time to read everything you wanted. You are sitting on the steps of a university building, having planned your reading for months to come, only to find your kindle battery has run out of juice and there's not active wi-fi for thousands of miles. It's the new version of Time Enough at Last.

LilyBart said...

I love books - the 'old fashioned kind' with covers and paper pages. I love homes of book-lovers where the books are stacked on the floors because they've run out of shelf space.

I love in the internet too - but there is little beauty in it. No romanticism in it. Same with virtual books. These are tools, not objects to be loved and desired.

Robert Cook said...

The internet is, by definition, the virtual world, not the material world. Once can transform the data found in this virtual world into material data by printing it out, of course.

Count me in as preferring physical books to e-books. Although I appreciate the convenience of e-books and have a couple of dozen on my iPhone, they are there for one of two reasons: primarily, where I could obtain free e-book versions of old, public domain or out of print texts--the SF novels of H.G. Wells, Walter Lippman's PUBLIC OPINION, and other miscellany, and secondarily, in order that if I'm ever caught out without reading matter in hand--a book or newpaper--I can pull out the iPhone and I have a nice portable library to occupy me.

I do feel a fetishistic reverence for the physical objects of books, aside from the pleasures they afford by reading them.

KCFleming said...

Strangely, words fail when trying to convey the emotions that books cause.

My mom's bookshelves seemed endless to me as a child. Books were stacked in odd places, too, like windowsills. Some of her volumes I now own, my fingers tracing pages she had stalled on, distracted by a child's cry, cigarette ashes now caught in the crease forever.

I don't get the same kick from Stacy McCain.

Scott M said...


I tend to favor bookmarks, but my father and grandfather both simply dog-earred the page they stopped on last. That leaves a small indention even years later.

What I find curious is that I'll read something one of them had read (more than a decade ago in the case of my grandfather) and find myself stopping in the same places. These aren't necessarily chapter endings or other obvious stopping places, so it would seem a bit more random...until I noticed it happening a lot over the years.

KCFleming said...

@ScottM ...Strange and comforting, whether spirit or DNA.

Marc Cohn: The things we've handed down.

William said...

Scribner's was a lovely book store. It had a distinctive facade, old fashioned but welcoming like an introductory paragraph by Dickens. A lot of the girls who worked there were seven sisters graduates, working there to commence their New York adventure. That's one of the hidden prices of feminism. No more smart, overqualified girls working in retail. Anyway, to the extent that a bookstore could be romantic and exciting, Scribner's was romantic and exciting......I liked it better than Rizzoli's. Rizzoli had a warm interior but the art books were so hideously overpriced that I never felt welcoome. Doubleday's was OK. It had some kind of glass staircase that allowed you to look up the miniskirts of girls descending the staircase. But there was something too crisp and modern about the books were displayed. Next to the Strand, Scribner's was my all time favorite bookstore.

halojones-fan said...

Books are horses. Books are movie theaters. Books are a result, not a goal; they used to be the only way that print media could be communicated to the consumer, just as movie theaters used to be the only way you could see a film and horses used to be the only way you could get anywhere.

The only reason anyone rides a horse now is as an affectation, or luxury-class leisure; movie theaters are barely hanging on, but even they have had to start going up-market to retain business. Print books will be the same way.

If you're worried about print books going away, don't be; they'll always be available. As luxury goods, and at luxury prices. The days of the cheap mass-market genre-trash print books are disappearing; instead you'll get fifty-dollar "library edition" prints, and a ten-dollar "e-book" version.

Scott M said...

If you're worried about print books going away, don't be; they'll always be available. As luxury goods, and at luxury prices. The days of the cheap mass-market genre-trash print books are disappearing; instead you'll get fifty-dollar "library edition" prints, and a ten-dollar "e-book" version.

Somewhere someone is lathering up over the inevitable (if what you say is true) government subsidies to close the "e-reader gap" our inner city youths are going to suffer from.

KCFleming said...

"Books are a result, not a goal"

That's only partly true.

Some books are an end in themselves, others are just the cheapest mode of data transmission.

A subway train, or a Lexus?
A polaroid, or Diane Arbus?
A ledger entry for sunflower seeds, or Van Gogh's Vase with Twelve Sunflowers?
It was ever thus.

Chip Ahoy said...

Physical paper books can be a major p in the b. The book that I am absorbing right now relies heavily on its typeset which is entirely too small. The English portion is fine but the glyphic portion is way too tiny to read precisely and with confidence. I cannot tell the difference between a G-1, Egyptian eagle, and a G-4, long-legged buzzard. Here, see the similarity. When that ← is shrunken, they become indistinguishable, and that is just one example. There are many more glyphs that rely on details to distinguish them. Forget about learning new complex glyphs from the book, when presented with them other sources must be referenced to confirm. The book is nearly 500 pages so I do understand the publisher's decision. It was a way to get it all into one volume, and the printing itself is outstanding. I do not know which corrective I would prefer; a gigantic book that would be even more unwieldy, which would be kind of cool actually, or a two-volume set. Those are a pain too, and always twice as expensive, naturally. Even so with its minute glyphic typeset, this book is still too thick and too heavy unless it is read as a novel, and I suppose people do, but the book has exercises in it and to go through it carefully one needs the book to open fully and have it lay flatly and this book does not do any of that. As it is, the book is impossible. Answer: remove the cover and rip the thing apart into sections and use each segment separately, work through the book as a series of magazines. Ta daaaaa. Now this coverless book in pieces comports with my needs, but the glyphic font is still way too tiny. Answer: magnifying glass and have other sources at the ready and a willingness to cheerfully flip back and forth between sources. Kind of a shame innit. I see this book here all torn apart like that and it seems to break a fundamental rule regarding book stewardship. I'll have to piece it back together and cinch it with a belt when I'm through with it to show that I really do care. All of this is solved by an electronic version of the same text which is not available.

Maybe I should say all this on Amazon and not here.

But don't get me wrong. I love me some books and I do provide them lovely bookcases for storage and for ready access. And besides, electronic pop-ups are not nearly as fascinating.

Scott M said... ya, man, but paragraphs are your friend, not your enemy.

Roger Sweeny said...

Books are material. Electrons are material. You see physical books or ebooks only because light waves come from them to your eyes.

Ebooks can be permanent or ephemeral, just as you can keep books or give them away or trash them or return them to the library.

A book has physical heft, unlike an ebook--or perhaps more precisely, all ebooks have the same physical heft, which is that of their electronic reader. Printed books vary. And unlike ebooks, they have different covers (just don't judge them ...).

amba said...

John Updike on samizdat, a quote that has lodged permanently in my mind:
He had returned to the archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.

amba said...

Here's a delectable description of a book as a "remarkable reading batteries, ambient light screen, random access," by notorious tech head Kevin Kelly, trying to entice you to buy one of his.

birdie said...

I like bookmarks (I manufacture them) and books and I applaud Patti Smith for her book and her sentiments about books. Here here.