Why we still need to inhabit the world of physical books.
When we read, we take journeys—into a new world, back in time. We re-meet old selves, uncover new places and horizons. Books are often as much about our pasts as about the stories of the books themselves. They’re also about the relationships they remind us of, the people we loan them to, the readers who came before us.
There are a lot of old children’s books on my shelves: some old family heirlooms, some bought in used bookstores. Each tells a story. There’s a late 19th-century illustrated paperback of The Gingerbread Man: the cover is sewn together with thread, the edges are tattered, a child’s signature is scrawled across the first page. The pictures bear riveting poppy reds and mustard yellows. On the bookshelf beside it is a 1960s copy of Now We Are Six, a collection of nursery rhymes from A.A. Milne that used to belong to my cousins. Beside that sits a pop-up version of The Little Prince: newer, but already laced with memories. I read it aloud to my little brother and fiancé (now husband) one Christmas eve as we drove home in a snowstorm, navigating perilous roads. The book kept us awake, aware, and cheerful.
It’s amazing how the old hardback novels on the shelf blend so beautifully together: their covers were often moss green, navy, cinnamon brown—the letters gilded in rich metallic. The older typography was often simple and scholarly, traditional serif fonts with delicate forms. The Victorian-era books have greater title flourishes, more feminine scripts. But if you stack them side-by-side on a shelf, they all blend in lovely harmony. There’s a stately grace to them.
Books today have a different character: rather than complementing each other, they often seem to be at war with each other, a clashing and clamoring of colors, fonts, and styles. There’s often a great creativity and artistry to their covers, but they can also seem as riotous and mentally-assaulting as a bunch of tv commercials. Their diversity—one of the beauties of the print book—can also be their greatest aesthetic turn-off.
Yet e-books are in an entirely separate world: they all have covers, certainly, but they’re glimpsed rarely by the reader, as the book automatically saves its place and opens to the last page you left. The pages’ fonts are particular to the tablet and its owner, not the book: ones you pick and customize according to your taste. Even the font size will change according to your preferences. E-books aren’t things you buy “used”—each is a new digital edition, particular to you, stripped of history. All of these things make the reading experience easier—but do they make it memorable, endearing?
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Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.