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We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time. Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts they’ll be gone. Off the screen they do not exist as words. They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit. I cannot carry them beneath a tree or onto a side porch; I cannot argue in their margins; I cannot enjoy the memory of my dismay when, perhaps after years, I return to my treasured copy of Treasure Island to find the jam I inadvertently smeared there still spotting a page precisely at the place where Billy Bones chases Black Dog out of the Admiral Benbow with a volley of oaths and where his cutlass misses its mark to notch the inn’s wide sign instead.

My copy, which I still possess, was of the cheapest. Published by M. A. Donohue & Co. of Chicago, it bears no date, and its coarse pages are jaundiced and brittle, yet they’ve outlived their manufacturer; they will outlive their reader—always comforting yet a bit sad. The pages, in fact, smell their age, their decrepitude, and the jam smear is like an ancient bruise; but as well as Marcel did by means of his madeleine, like a scar recalling its accident, I remember the pounding in my chest when the black spot was pressed into Billy Bones’s palm and Blind Pew appeared on the road in a passage that I knew even then was a piece of exemplary prose.

That book and I loved each other, and I don’t mean just its text: that book, which then was new, its cover slick and shiny, its paper agleam with the tossing sea and armed, as Long John Silver was, for a fight, its binding tight as the elastic of new underwear, not slack as it is now, after so many openings and closings; that book would be borne off to my room, where it lived through my high school miseries, and it would accompany me to college and be packed in the bag I carried as a sailor. Its body may have been cheaply made, and there may have been many copies printed, but the entire press run has by this time been dispersed, the book’s function reduced to its role as my old school chum, whom I see at an occasional reunion, along with Malory and Mann, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Hardy and Spengler, gloomy friends of my gloomy youth. Each copy went forth into bookstores to seek a purchaser it would make fortunate, and each has had its history of success or failure since, years of standing among rarity and leather, say, when suddenly it finds itself in some secondhand ghetto, dumped for a pittance by callous heirs into a crowd of those said, like cars, to have been “previously owned.”

We all love the “previously owned.” We rescue them like orphans from their Dickensian dismay. I first hold the volume upside down and give its pages a good ruffle, as if I were shaking fruit from a tree: out will fall toothpicks and hairpins, bits of scrap paper, the envelope for a stick of Doublemint gum, a carefully folded obituary of the book’s author, the newsprint having acidulously shadowed its containing pages, or, now and then, a message, interred in the text, as I had flutter from a volume once owned by Arthur Holly Compton. It was the draft of a telegram to the US high commissioner in charge of our troops in Germany requesting the immediate dispatch of Werner Heisenberg to the United States.

Should we put these feelings for the object and its vicissitudes down to simple nostalgia? To our resistance to change? I think not; but even as a stimulus for reminiscence, a treasured book is more important than a dance card, or the photo that freezes you in mid-teeter at the edge of the Grand Canyon, because such a book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading should be an essential segment of your character and your life. Unlike the love we’ve made or meals we’ve eaten, books congregate to form a record around us of what they’ve fed our stomachs or our brains. These are not a hunter’s trophies but the living animals themselves.

From “In Defense of the Book,” which appeared in the November 1999 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2011

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