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Voices | David Mehegan

Bound up in books

By David Mehegan
November 2, 2009

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There’s a new bronze statue of St. Paul outside the local parish church, by Hingham-based sculptor Susan Luery. Seated on a granite boulder and rotated slightly to his left, the saint appears to be preaching to an invisible audience. He is gesturing with one hand, and the other holds a codex.

A codex is a proto-book from late ancient times: a stack of sheets made of animal skin, with text on both sides, bound at one edge, and protected by a hinged wooden cover. Early Christian missionaries found codices handier than scrolls. They held more text, were easier to pack and carry, and could survive damage from fire or water. Two millennia later, we’re still using the codex system, but for how much longer is uncertain.

Amazon.com’s Kindle and the new Barnes & Noble Nook are, for the first time, making the book seem obsolete, at least to some. Google, meanwhile, is hard at work digitizing millions of volumes, in effect shifting the reading experience from paper to the computer screen. Libraries are scrutinizing their book-buying budgets as more and more patrons want other kinds of media. Cushing Academy, a private boarding school in Central Massachusetts, decided recently to get rid of its 20,000 library books and rely entirely on e-readers.

Let’s not be sentimental. It could be that the book as we know it is passé and that we should face facts. Perhaps the codex was just the Kindle of its day, with an unusually long career, inevitably to be supplanted by something better. I’m resisting this idea. I can’t shake the hunch that books are rooted in our emotional, cultural, even physical selves to an extent that we don’t fully apprehend.

Why do we keep books? My own bookcases are overflowing. I swivel my chair, look across the room, and ask myself, why do I keep Dostoevsky’s ‘‘Crime and Punishment’’ or ‘‘The Souls of Black Folk,’’ by W.E.B. Du Bois, or eight novels by Heinrich Boll? Why not dump them, and all the others, and go digital, like sensible Cushing Academy? I could use the space to store something really valuable, such as a Lladro collection.

Impossible. Reading and having books is like wearing clothes. Much of the year, we could go around naked, if we could think of where to keep our keys. But that would not seem quite natural. I would feel abandoned, almost defenseless, without my books. Do others remember, as I do, where they were when they read certain books that changed everything? In a strange way, if I keep the book, I keep that memory. And if I know, or knew, the writer, it’s like keeping a friend nearby.

A good book is an artifact made with passion, study, or struggle. Newspapers are not the same; you may love your Boston Globe, but today’s edition will end up on the bottom of your birdcage. Someone is bound to invent a way of digitizing the paintings of Rembrandt to make possible an image that is better than we could get by gazing at the original. But we still would want to see the paintings. The human touch cannot be digitized.

On my desk as I write this is a little stack of tattered volumes that I kept from my mother’s shelf when she died in 2002. There’s “The Art of the Dramatist’’ (1956), a series of lectures by British playwright J.B. Priestley; “Faith and Reason: A First Course in Apologetics’’ (1937), by Austin G. Schmidt and Joseph A. Perkins; “The Way of All Women: A Psychological Interpretation’’ (1933), by M. Esther Harding (with introduction by C.G. Jung, M.D.); and “On Another Man’s Wound’’ (1936), a classic memoir of the 1916-1921 Anglo-Irish war by Ernie O Malley.

Aside from O Malley, I’ve not read these books and probably never will. I keep them because they link me to a person and personality as no other thing, such as a hat or set of dishes, could do. Just now, for the first time, I found a scribbled note tucked in O Malley, in my mother’s hand: “The head of the Irish Presbyterian Church, Rev. John Dunlop, about the Ulster violence: ‘If we define ourselves by what happened in history, we can never move forward into the future. It has to be possible for us to believe the future can be different.’ ’’ This could apply to books and Kindles, as well as war. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, I’ll keep the book, and the note.

David Mehegan can be reached at dmehegan@bu.edu.

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