Bookmark: In Honor of Physical Books

It seems I’ve annoyed some people on Twitter, which is actually not that hard to do (I’ve done it before). It always surprises me when this happens because I think I’m tweeting something innocuous, but sometimes people read tweets a lot more carefully than I expected.

In this case, I wanted to praise physical books.

I called them “real” books, which drove some people crazy. They thought I was suggesting that eBooks and audiobooks are not real. I didn’t think so at all. I was just thinking how wonderful it is to spend some time with a beautiful well designed physical book with pages made of heavy paper, perhaps with borders and French flaps, a book that takes its time to get to the point and so you luxuriously turn page after page with title, epigram, assignment, table of contents, no rush here, let’s not rush things, let’s admire and slow down and think.

I like pretty much all physical books, to be honest. I love the cheap paperbacks that you can put in a purse or backpack without fear of damage, even the old Bantam editions with the grisly covers. I love the used books I pick up for a few bucks from Goodwill or a thrift bookstore, with someone else’s inscriptions and underlines and bookmarks. I love wartime books, with extra thin paper to comply with government regulations; and I like beautiful books, with silk paper-protected frontispieces and embossed covers (white on white is particularly striking), and satin ribbon bookmarks, black and white illustrations, maps and charts and timelines and casts of characters.

I love them all.

There was a time, centuries ago, when books were highly prized and extremely valuable; they were so revered that they were treated as almost sacred. Bookmakers made them one by one. They covered the covers with jewels and gold leaf, carefully stitching the pages together. The whole process could take weeks, even months, and when they were done, Voila! A book.

Years ago I came across a museum dedicated to the history of the book: the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin Castle. I remember walking through this very modern space in this very old building, gazing at the beautiful displays – parchment, papyrus, illuminated Quran and Bible manuscripts, ancient hand-bound books with leather covers and gilt lettering and marbled endpapers.

I understand the appeal of eBooks and audiobooks, and I agree that every way people learn to read is valid and ‘real’. Honestly, I read books on my iPad all the time myself. That way I can take as many titles as I want, blow up the type and change the screen brightness. They are handy. But I don’t like them.

But physical books… oh god, they have weight, they have scent, they have personality. Think you don’t judge a book by its cover? Of course you do. I do. Everyone does. We will know them by the relief cover, the cover edges and the marbled endpapers. Maybe I’ll go back on Twitter and say so.

Laurie Hertzel is the editor of books at the Star Tribune. Write her at [email protected]

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