The Bedside Library


Bedside booksWhen the books stacked beside the bed get tall enough to hold not only a cup of tea at easy reach, but a plate of toast with no threat of falling, then perhaps it’s time to cull the pile and put aside those books not being actively read. That takes some time to sort out the reading-right-now from the reading-now-and-then, and the reading-for-a-purpose from the reading-when-it-pleases-me books. There is at least a shelf of books beside my bedside, perhaps more.

I’m not sure how many of my blog readers have a bedside book stack, but it goes without saying that reading at bedtime is a practice of the civilized life. Books have a revered place within arm’s reach of the covers.

Under some circumstances, I might grudgingly accept an e-reader, as a modern accessory to permit reading in other situations (like travel abroad), but in a bedroom, a TV is a place where only Philistines cavort.

Or, actually, stare vacantly at their piece of furniture. TV does not encourage participation, discussion or engagement.

Susan agrees wholeheartedly with my prejudices against TV sets in bedrooms, and has her own book stack, albeit in a more tidy and shevelled* manor than mine.

TVs belong in public places, like airports, bus depots or family living rooms. They do not belong in intimate places like bedrooms where couples can shed their daily woes. Watching a TV is a passive, submissive act, an act of self-inflicted mental slavery.

Reading is an active act, a participation between reader and author, a sharing of ideas, an exploration of new worlds.

Reading is one of the few acts we engage in, in which we share the immortality of another, in which we get close to another’s thoughts. Reading is second only to sex for intimacy. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer is a time machine that allows me to visit a world that would otherwise be beyond my grasp. But it is equally so for Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mike Hammer and Emily Bronte. Doors open when you read, worlds are laid at your feet. Neurons fire up when you read.

TV, on the other hand, is about as intimate as any dentist’s office. That’s one reason it should be kept out of places like bedrooms. Doors close when you watch TV. So do minds. Neurons sleep when you watch TV.

My own reading habits and Susan’s are polar opposites. She reads a book, one at a time, cover to cover, word for word, then tackles the next. I read a chapter here, there, picking up books from the pile in no order, usually having a dozen on the go at any time. I have separate books in different bathrooms, books for travel, books for comfort, books for study, books for inspiration, books to argue with, books to teach. I read like a magpie, picking at bits and pieces.

A few years past, when we went to Mexico, I foolishly took a box of books as a separate item of luggage. In our two weeks, I got through most; at least those I wanted to complete or read the specific portions if not all (I took, for example, a complete works of Shakespeare, and read three plays). I can easily appreciate the value of an e-reader in these circumstances, since it can carry hundreds of works in one light unit.

Susan, on the other hand, took a few of her own books, read them, and then traded them for others from hotel guests and friends. Clever girl.

My reluctance to get an e-reader is based on three basic issues. First is that I am uneasy about paying for a digital book that doesn’t translate into something on my bookshelf I can handle, read in the bath, or lend to others. The sheer physicality of books is its own reward. I love holding one, turning the pages, feeling the heft, smelling the paper and ink. An old or vintage book is a sensual time machine. An e-book is… what? An electric charge in a machine?

The second is that I tend to read mostly non-fiction and most of what I read isn’t yet available in e-reader format, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. That may be changing for contemporary works, but my library also has a large component of older books that predate e-readers by a few decades, sometimes by a century or more. I can find books to read on Abebooks, but not in Kindle format.

Would I be able to get all of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs on an e-reader? Or my 12-volume edition of Casanova’s memoirs? The chess books I still have (gathering dust, I admit, but nonetheless beloved) from my chess heyday 30-plus years ago, but still pick up now and then to peruse?

My third sticking point is price. I am willing to pay for a physical book, but when I see an e-book version that costs almost as much, I fail to see the advantage of the investment. Years later, the physical book will still be on my shelf (assuming I have not donated it to the local library as I like to do), but the e-book? Gone, forgotten. Digital dust. Maybe even deleted by the seller after its limited licence runs out. What do you leave in your will of an e-reader’s contents?

For me, an e-reader will be great for classics – Darwin, Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Machiavelli – the authors in the public domain (thus free or inexpensive). But I would never purchase a new book that way without assurances that it would not be deleted without my approval, that it could be printed or text copied from it (for transmission by email if necessary) and that I had some price bonus like a discount when I decided to buy the physical version. But would it give me the same joy as when I open a volume of the 1930s’ collected works of Rudyard Kipling and start reading a story or poem at random?

Right now, beside the bed, I am reading a book on how Shakespeare’s first folio changed publishing, several books on etymology, language and grammar, one on the history of Christianity and another on biblical archeology (odd for an atheist, I know, but religion fascinates me as a social and historical topic and I read a lot about it), two books on demonology and the history of the idea of evil (for a novel I’m playing with), several books on marketing and public relations (for another book I’m writing), some books on Machiavelli and Renaissance politics (always learning about him), about Tudor history (with Jacobean, is a favourite topic of mine), about CSS and HTML (to improve my coding skills), a few novels (Christopher Moore, Michael Quinn and a Tom Clancy, plus a couple of fantasy and scifi novels), some books on technological changes and developments (for another book), an annotated Municipal Act (for council), a book on emerging viruses, another on the history of vaccines (and one on the emergence of “fear” cultures including the current New Age anti-vaccine mania), a book on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Nazi connections in the 1930s, a revised history of the fall of Rome, a book on creative design and architecture, a book on urban startup communities, a book on gambling culture in Canada, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero’s speeches, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and a few others I can’t recall because I pulled them off the bookshelves to look something up and will put them back in the next day or two. Plus, of course, an Oxford Dictionary, and a thesaurus, which are ever-present.

I can’t imagine that an e-reader could fill that void if the books were all to vanish. And certainly all the TV shows in the world for an entire year would never, ever compensate for the loss of a single book. It would be like trading a world for a piece of simple gravel. It would be turning off my mind and joining the sheep in mindless adoration of the flickering screen.

I will sort, I will change my bedside books, but I will never get rid of that pile. Besides, where would I put my Ovaltine when I’m reading at night before sleep?

 ~~~~~

* The opposite of dishevelled, of course.

 

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