Monday, January 23, 2012

The Practical Reader and The Sentimental Reader

My Books I: The Practical Reader

I have quite a few books in my apartment, seven shelves full. I like books. I like the way they look, standing in order (by subject for the non-fiction and by author for fiction) on the shelves. I like having them and seeing them, but I am not especially possessive about my books. I don't mind lending them, I don't even really mind it when I don't get them back. Maybe it is the librarian in me, but I think that books should be enjoyed and circulated.

This might be the last place I ever live where I have large bookshelves. I have always had books. As a child I had lots of books. At university I studied English literature, and that meant acquiring lots of books. The nightstand in my bedroom always has a pile of books on it, waiting to be read.

That changed about a year ago. I got a Kindle, an electronic book reader. Now all the latest books I have acquired have been in e-reader format. It makes more sense: because I read mostly in English, and English-language books tend to be expensive and hard to come by here, I was buying a lot of books when I travelled. Half of the room in my suitcase was always taken up with books. Now I just load the book files onto the Kindle and I am good to go. It is a more rational way of reading and transporting books. It has a feature that lets you underline text and take notes, and it saves these annotations to a text file that can be transferred to the computer so that you can work on them later. This is very practical, as is the ability to search the pages for strings of text to find a certain quote or reference.

Still, I'll miss the texture of "dead-tree" books, the smell of paper and ink, the slight crackle as you break open a new book, knowing exactly how much you have left in the book because you can see how the pages have run through your hands like sand through an hourglass. I like to underline and write notes in the margins of book and, if the publisher has been so accommodating, I will write ample observations on the blank pages at the back. My books tend to be thoroughly defaced. You really need to have a hardcopy book if you want to have it signed by the author at the Hay Festival (asking an author sign your Kindle is practically tantamount to asking a rock star to sign your boob because you don't have the album jacket, except perhaps it's nerdier).

Some people augured that the advent of electronic media would mean the end of reading. I would argue that the opposite has taken place: I think that more people are reading and writing now than ever before because the media make it both easier and more necessary. Nowadays, when you want to find out what is happening with a breaking news story, you check an online news site (or Twitter), before newspapers, radio, or television. Email has changed the way we communicate. It is more important than ever to have good written communication skills for business correspondence. More people write personal letters too, knowing that friends and family will receive them quickly and for free, along with the attached photos and videos. As to the Kindle, I now have access to more books, easily available and at reasonable cost (plus there is a plethora of titles that are available for free), than I have had for years.

The days of the dead-tree book are numbered and although I feel a certain nostalgia for the format, I think that the new media are a boon to anyone who reads for pleasure or information.

My Books II: The Sentimental Reader

When I moved to Colombia I brought three books with me: a Spanish grammar from the basic class I took prior to departure; the South American Handbook, a comprehensive travel guide that served me well over the years; and the Harrowsmith Cookbook, Volume 1. Over years I accumulated a lot more books. Most have been readings for my book club, but I also picked up a number of Colombian cookbooks and other books for general reading. Plus every time someone left the country, there was a big sell-off/giveaway of books. Each year when I traveled, I slowly picked up books that I had left behind and brought them to add to my bookshelf here. Now I am looking at the possibility of moving back, I have to decide which books I will take back with me.

I have seven shelves of books in this apartment. It is clear that I cannot take all of them with me when I move. Still, the thought of having to part with these books that I have appreciated over the years brings on a pang on nostalgia.

So what books will I pack to go? First of all some children's books: The Night Before Christmas, and the collection of Winnie the Pooh and the poetry of A.A. Milne. These are books that I have had since I was three-years-old. I dug these books out of the boxes where they were stored in my mother's basement and brought them here to share with my sons when they were little.

The Harrowsmith Cookbook: This was a book that I brought with me in my suitcase when I first arrived. Recipes and cooking are deeply ingrained cultural traditions. This cookbook helped me through the rough times when I felt homesick. Even if I couldn't be back home, I could recreate the smell and flavors. It is a heavy, bulky book to pack and I wouldn't mind just buying a new copy when I get back, but it is out of print, so I'll have to take my copy back with me. La Cocina colombiana (Vol. 1): This was one of the first Colombian cookbooks I bought. This book provides a comprehensive overview of Colombian cuisine. It will come back with me as a reminder of the flavors and dishes of my second homeland.

The final book that will make it into my bag for the return trip is The Shock of the New. This book on modern art was the textbook for a class I took in university that looked at art, literature, and social-political context during the period of 1914 to the 1970's. The class was an epiphany experience for me, in terms of understanding the social significance of art. Both of the boys have always been interested in art, and we have referred to this book many times over the years.

I hold onto my books as a testimony to the past. I enjoy and use them on a daily basis (at least the cookbooks). Books will continue to be part of my life as I head into the future, but the physical book format is in decline. Really, the number of books that I need to own as physical objects is very small.

The basic Spanish grammar and the 1989 South American Handbook will stay behind. The former I have mastered and no longer need. The latter has been superceded. Now when I travel, I look up information on the Internet. The book still sits on my bookshelf for sentimental reasons. It is a testimony to my marathon trip around South American in 1992 (the Discovering America Tour). But the world has changed over the course of the past 23 years and the book is outdated. It is time to move on.


I'll be at the Hay literary festival in Cartagena from January 26th to 31st. Unfortunately I won't have Internet access at the place where I am staying this year, so I will not be posting updates as I go. You may look forward to the first reviews of the conferences next week.

Photo by Joan Carmichael

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