March 10, 2013

Maine Observer: Stacks of books speak volumes about a reader

Kindles, Nooks and the like may be more convenient, but tangible tomes are unmatched as their owners' companions.

By JOAN SILVERMAN

If you love books, you've probably noticed their tendency to multiply, to crop up everywhere in your home. On a bench, by the bedside, on tables -- anywhere a chunk of real estate allows.

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At first you don't mind the little stacks of books rising out of the floor; they're actually quaint along the side of a stair. But quaintness finally gives way to overcrowding, and both of you need more space. So it was in my house not that long ago.

While visiting last year, a friend sized up the problem and the solution. She pointed to a trio of windows in my den, under which built-in shelving would handily absorb my stray books. Sometimes it takes an outsider's eye to see what's right under your nose.

A couple of months later, my new bookcase arrived. Suddenly I was reclaiming old surfaces, sorting and shelving, adding sense to the sensibility of having things in their place.

Nor were these the only rewards. Rows of books on shelves impart an air of depth and history, as if the aggregate of all those words, and the stories they tell, add up to a universe of sorts.

Whether or not such loftiness pertains, the basic concept applies: Books on shelves denote tangible substance in an increasingly virtual world.

My new bookcase has that solid, feet-on-the-ground aspect, if not the loftiness, going for it. It also has considerable spine -- literally, hundreds of spines of books in varying shapes, sizes, colors and textures.

Over time, I've come to view those books standing upright, with their perfect posture, as an army of sorts, defending against, well, their disappearance.

Visit the homes of people under, say, 30, and the shelves often tell a different story. They're filled with disks, not books, and it's a one-size-fits-all proposition. More often than not, a flat screen dominates the main room, and nowhere can a comfy chair be found, with a suitable lamp, for old-fashioned reading.

I know, I know. Things change, books now live on e-readers and the cloud, and I should evolve with the times. In fact, I have, which may explain my ambivalence. Most of my reading now takes place on a tablet or laptop -- I admit my collusion in this regard.

No wonder there's an entire industry that sells books in bulk to interior decorators. If one lacks hardcovers or paperbacks that have been read, lived in and pored over, they can simply be acquired en masse, their character and resume assumed. If I were a young person setting up house today, I might be looking to those books-in-bulk outfits for help.

Kindles, Nooks and other devices may open up entire worlds; but downloads, even of literature, will never convey the sensory pleasures of living in the company of books.

Joan Silverman of Kennebunk writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications.

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