A Love Song for Dead Tree Books

Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

The other day, I bought a copy of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. I got home with it, sat down to read, cracked it open…and was instantly distracted by the paper itself.

The pages used in this trade paperback book aren’t any thicker than usual, but they are more rough. They feel so different when one slides a finger across the words. There is a sandpaper quality about it. I don’t mind admitting, it keeps distracting me from the book itself. Every time I turn the page, I get that lovely feeling beneath my fingers.

This is similar to that other paper-quality I get on some books, when they haven’t cut the edges of the pages to be all the same size. My big hardcover of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is nothing but raggedy edges. I have no idea why that happens with some books and not with others, and I can’t quite explain why I enjoy it, but I do.

By now, some of you are rolling your eyes. This is sounding an awful lot like the tedious arguments we get from people when they are railing against ebooks. People will never go for ebooks. They like the FEEL of the paper, the SMELL of the books, feeling the books’ weight in their hands etc etc etc. They’re tired arguments, and they rely entirely on nostalgia, which I have absolutely no time or patience for.

But nonetheless…dammit, I love paper books. I think it’s okay, because I’m not using it as an argument against ebooks (I don’t much like ebooks, myself, but then, I also never cared for mass-market paperback books. It’s just that no one was evangelical about that the way we now are about technology, so no one cared about my preferences then). I’m not arguing for or against anything. I just want to wax about paper books. I must love them. I’ve got eight bookshelves full of them at the moment. They’re rather overwhelming my house.

I love rough pages, like I mentioned above. I also like the smooth pages of a hardcover well put together, everything smooth and streamlined and well-bound. It feels like an expensive and luxurious item, even without a leather cover or gold-gilt binding. I love it when my non-fiction books have used a heavier stock of paper and the whole book is heavy and feels solid. It feels important. I like that.

I love old comic books. One of the great problems with digital comics – and even collections of issues bound together – is that they leave out all the junk that would date the comic almost instantly! I’ve got a comic issue from 1992 sometime, and it’s got this full-page coming-soon ad for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, my favorite Star Trek film. I just recently bought a bazillion individual issues of Promethea, my favorite Alan Moore comic. Some of my pleasure is coming from reading an amazing story, true…but I keep stopping and laughing at the ads. Oh look! This fall, I can buy Blade on VHS! And it’s also apparently available in this new format, “DVD,” but the text for that is kind of tiny, cause who’s gonna go in for that? Each issue is also stuffed with ads for a new Game Boy, now with color! And also new Nintendo64 games. And here is a very young indeed Sarah Michelle Gellar doing a Got Milk? ad.

I love old books. I have three volumes of Guy De Maupassant stories from 1890 through 1911 (and a funny aside here: two volumes were given to me by a friend and fellow editor, years ago. I don’t know why. I’d never mentioned my fondness for Maupassant, not once. Years later, another friend found a volume of his stories and sent it to me. I had still failed to ever mention my interest in him. I attract old Maupassant books, I guess? I don’t mind, because I actually love his stories).

What I love about the old books is their connection back through history. I read enough history, it feels alive and vibrant to me a lot of the time. There were people handling and reading these books so long ago that their time periods are in history books, and not under the “recent” section. A little bundle of historical weight. It’s exciting to have.

I love notes in books. I bought a copy of The Last Samurai from a used bookshop. I don’t know who owned it before me, but they filled the margins (and sometimes wrote over the text), and all these notes are entirely in Japanese. I have absolutely no idea what any of them say. I don’t care. I adore it.

I also love the flotsam and jetsam one finds in books. I used to work in a used bookstore, and it was always amazing what people would forget they had put in their books. Sometimes letters, or old concert tickets, sometimes money. It was usually junk that went into the trash, sure, but it was a thirty-second glimpse at somebody else, and that was a lot of fun.

So I love physical books, and I’m not ashamed. I don’t mind ebooks much, I guess. I usually have a book on the go in digital form, and I enjoy that. I guess physical books, their bookstores, their store and care, is not all that efficient…but so what? Efficiency is a kind of hallmark of our business-driven, technology-driven world. That’s okay, but I like a bit of opulence and inefficiency. I like cathedrals and am not going to walk around a church which has set up shop in an old doctor’s office or house or whatever.

(And speaking of buildings, all of this is failing to talk about my love for bookstores and libraries, but if I start talking about that, this article will go on for all of time. I do buy my books online from time to time, but online stores never have a cat in them, therefore they are inferior. It’s just science.)

In my house, we have eight big bookshelves full of books. We also have a 55-gallon fish tank which we have no fish in right now, so I’ve put all my oversized science books, my autographed books, my very old Maupassant books, filling in it (and then we put plastic fish on top of it. It’s fooling everybody).

Here’s to paper books, with all my love, and with my apologies to the forests. One day my family will come home and find the shelves have collapsed and I’ve been crushed under books, but so what? There’s worse ways to go.

Nobody’s going to be interested in your new-fangled ebooks until they offer the chance for a crushing death, okay? I’m just saying.