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12 August 2009

The Sensuality of Reading

I read an article in the NY Times (online!) the other day, about a musical instrument found in a dumpster broken, smelly and covered in grime, which turned out to be a rare although not highly, highly sought-after (read, "someone will pay megabucks to have") harp made by John Egan, described by historians as "the father of the modern Irish harp," because Egan revived an ancient instrument and tradition. Egan did it by combining elements -- old and new, from different kinds of harps -- to create "'a completely new romantic type of Irish harp, which was very successful, and which formed the basis of all subsequent revivals'."

This found object has been adopted by a musician who looks forward to restoring and then, playing this instrument.

"In the meantime he has been savoring the instrument, which he said he thought dated back to before 1820 and which he considered beautiful even in its damaged state.

"'Finding an Egan is like finding a fossil,' he said. 'It’s a piece of history, and for the rest of my life I will be in awe of this instrument.'"

There is a concept that niggled in my brain. My reading this article came straight after talking with Suellen of Kinkoona Farm's mattress topper fame in this blog and after conversing with many others about the advance of technology heralding (prematurely) the demise of books -- not e-books but "hardcopy," paper & ink (& bound) books which we happen to sell in a bricks & mortar establishment. They all said things like "I am a very tactile person," or "I like the feel of paper/smell of ink/weight of a book in my hand," or "I like to open up a book and curl up to read it/sit next to my little girl/boy/children and share it/read it together," or "I like to browse in a bookstore for both new bestsellers and books I've never heard of and flip through the pages, read a paragraph here and there and maybe even the last line of the book to get a feel for whether this is the kind of book I would want to read. You can't do that online even if they give you the whole first chapter free."
The operative word is "feel" or "tactile." Or, maybe in a broader sense (pun or no pun), "sensual" is how we could describe the experience of smelling, feeling, touching and holding certain objects -- made of cloth, wood, paper, porcelain, living fur & flesh... a mattress topper to stroke, an instrument to play, a vase of flowers to smell and admire, an apple to polish, maybe cut and eat, a child's head of hair to comb and fuss over, a book to open, turn the page and read.
To expand on the benefits of book in hand:
A book can be lovingly stroked.
It can be ripped in anger or dropped in carelessness and hastily or painstakingly restored.
It can be jealously cherished in pristine condition and it can be generously shared with personal scribbles in the margins.
True, a printed book can get heavy. If truly destroyed, we can only go back to the store and buy a new one.
I find the argument about saving the environment specious (the word as Larry would use), because it seems (no geek data link here, sorry) we use a lot more trees to make disposable cups, plates, catalogs, floor dusters, (nearly equally disposable) furniture and one-sided hardcopy first (and second and third and final) drafts of documents, besides being able to use kenaf instead, and I won't even get into our world's waste of plastic, styrofoam, electricity, water, clean air and arable land (paved over for another parking lot or one-story, football-field-sized stand-alone store). It assumes the creation of a book is temporal and thus, wasteful, when in truth, most books live numerous and very long lives. Even when someone decided to discard that harp, it was brought back to life, so too do printed books. Larry just finished reading Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote . It was published in 1982, and not being one of Greene's classics, it was out of print by the time we opened in 1998, so Larry, a great Graham Greene fan, did not happen upon it as we initially stocked our shelves. An old paperback was given to him by one of our customers, and he thought it was still out of print. And then, someone picked it up and thought, let's reprint this (in 2000 and then, in September 2008) , so in a way, it has both stayed alive and been revived, and we carry it now. It is not available as a Kindle book and it is not yet old enough to be a free e-book. But, you can still buy it new or in a used bookstore (bricks and mortar or online). We have it now at Books on First.

The paper ones will not go the way of parchment and papyrus in at least a few years, so I'm glad we all will be able to enjoy the benefits of both. We are fortunate in our times to have the wonders of books, both the "hardcopy" and electronic kinds (I especially like the idea that they will help those with limited vision). And, while "hardcopy" ones can double for paperweights, doorstops and hammers, the electronic readers can serve as small beacons at outdoor concert venues and nightlights when you wake up in the middle of night and need to write down the details of your dream or details for the better mousetrap.

All I can say is touch, stroke, open the book and read on!

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