August 15th, 2010

books in a stack

Books is books

Years ago there was a TV commercial for Wendy's, the fast food chain, that had the line, "Parts is parts." It was in reference to chicken sandwiches and was actually intended to be derogatory, as other chains (read "MacDonald's") were selling a chicken sandwich made from "processed chicken" whereas Wendy's chicken sandwich was a chunk of breast meat. "Parts is parts," was the answer to a potential other-chain's customer's question about which parts of the chicken went into the processed sandwich.

In spite of the nature of its original use, I tend rely on that line when someone asks about the differences between books and ebooks. Some people just plain love printed books as objects, things they want to own. That's fine, but owning and reading are two different things. I'm much more concerned about how much people read than how many books they own. Some people rely mostly on public libraries for their reading. At the other extreme, some people buy lots of print books that they never actually read. I consider that the first set of folks are, in fact, better for authors and publishers.

Today's Washington Post has an essay called “As electronic readers gain popularity, what happens to the personal library?”, by Post staff writer Philip Kennicott. Interestingly, in print the title reads “The home library fades away, part of the framework of our lives.”

The essay starts with a recollection of a time when Kennicott was at a boring party in a mansion and escaped to the beautifully but artificially furnished library where he sat down and read a Shakespeare play. He considers that a room designated for reading is a special place, to be treasured. My biggest argument with his reasoning is in this bit:

“But while most of us would never claim to have a home library — too pretentious — we secretly think of some room in the house as . . . the library. A place to read, to store books, to confront the past and future of our own limited knowledge, staring down at us in all its complicated categories: books you will read, books you should read, books you read and remember, books you read and forgot, lousy books your aunt gave you and you can't throw away because she still comes to visit from time to time.”

Really? While I have always had lots of books in the house, I never thought of any one room in as a library, not in any house I ever lived in. Have any of you? I did use to read in my walk-in closet (which I did not have until I was in my teens), but that was only so that no one would bother me while I was reading. I certainly didn't keep any books in there.

Kennicott goes on to say that the eReaders will make the home library go the way of “separate dining room and the formal parlor.” It seems to me he's bewailing the passing of something that doesn't, for the most part, exist now and never really existed except in upper-class houses. But of course, at the end he suggests what he will miss most is the relationship with those books that sit on the shelves but will never be read.

The essay is part of a series of book-centric articles in the Arts & Style section that discuss how important books are. In another article, people in differnet professions talk about the specific books that influenced them. In other, Katheryn Stockett describes how she came to write her bestselling debut novel The Help.
And finally, a second essay by Blake Gopnik makes the case for reading weighter books while on vacation, instead of taking only fluffy escapist reading to the beach.

All of the other articles illustrate the point that is the content of the books that matters most. I am all for people buying books and owning books, but I think reading is the verb that matters most where books are concerned, and as far as reading goes, “Books is books.”

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