A Day that Reminded Me Why I Love the Physicality of Books

Kindle is a wonderful thing. You can download books from almost anywhere, it has an inbuilt dictionary, and its saves paper too. But it doesn’t give me the two wonderful experiences I had the other day.

A friend had recommended that I would enjoy Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”. I enjoy the hunt of finding it in the Stanford stacks, walking through the long, softly lit and quiet hallways surrounded by millions of volumes, the heritage of countless civilizations.

I find the book and I see it was once owned by a Stanford professor who was born a century ago. I see his notes in the margins and gain a connection to some gifted thinker who is no longer alive. And I feel gratitude that he has left me, a stranger from the future, a true gift: A cherished book.

I like the weight of it in my bag, the feel of it in my hand as I read it, and the smell of the old pages. I am carrying a secret treasure from another time.

I spend much of the same day with Nick Reding, the writer of the magnificent book “Methland”. At a group lunch we pepper him with questions, and at the end several people hand Nick their copy of the book and ask for an inscription, which Nick kindly provides. Except for one guest, who with a bit of embarassment says “I did read your book and I loved it. I wish there were a way to autograph a Kindle”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “A Day that Reminded Me Why I Love the Physicality of Books”

  1. I learned of a way to autograph a Kindle book. It does require some equipment, and I have not tried it for any of my books, so this is second hand.

    You can generate a book cover in epub or mobi (the two main formats). If you have a tablet, you can then sign a copy of the cover and upload it to the other person's Kindle, so it becomes part of the book. That signature would be unique to that ebook, giving it some kind of collector's value.

    Way more cumbersome than just whipping out a fountain pen, obviously. But it is clear that some such process will become common. You can also attach a picture of you and the author or the author's half-finished Danish, or have a recording of the author answering your question, or any of a number of other unique markers that will serve to connect you and the book to the author.

  2. In 1989, my college library had a single copy of Rousseau's collected works in French. It apparently was purchased upon in 1825 and was still in the open stacks and available for checkout. For the few weeks I needed it, one of the volumes sat on my desk amid other books and papers. (I just checked, and that set has now been moved to the rare books library.)

  3. Marginalia are often as important as the original print itself. One of the things I miss about computer documentation is that there is no longer an easy way to make marginal notes about usage, and exactly what was meant. When I left the Health Department to join our faculty here, I really hated the thought of leaving my SAS (R) documentation behind. I thought about it for a bit and realized the U was going to provide me with documentation. I called and had them mail me the User's Guides they'd purchased and gave the Health Department new, unsullied copies and kept my dog-eared, marked up copies.

    There is also the sheer physical pleasure of reading a book on seriously good paper.

  4. IMO "A Dance to the Music of Time" is extremely over-rated.

    The video version was quite trite.

    Sort of a poor man's Brideshead Revisited or The Glittering Prizes.

    Also this post reminds me of the NYer article years ago on the hidden secrets of the card catalog.

    One could infer popularity of a work by the smudges on its card.

  5. After a William Gibson reading a couple months ago I ran into somebody who was on line to have Gibson sign their Kindle.

  6. I'm getting one for my birthday, primarily because out-of-print books having been kindlized…But one thing I know I won't be able to do with my new toy is swat that effing fly that's bothering me.

  7. Gave my 87 year old mother a kindle for her birthday, she really appreciates it. But she’d appreciate it more if it were as easy to use for somebody with arthritis as a paperback. The key debouncing on paperback books is excellent… She also finds it difficult to hold, without having one of her fingers landing on a key. Nice product, but I really think it could have been better designed, maybe a clamshell cover, where you could hold it one handed by the spine, like a book.

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