On one of my shelves at home I have a collection of old books. There’s a 1930s edition of Kristin Lavransdatter, a first edition of G.K. Chesterton’s autobiography, a crumbling copy of Archy and Mehitabel. But not all of them are great. The oldest is a history text from the 1820s that includes various marginalia, including a draft of a truly terrible poem written by a long-dead teenager to his sweetheart. Another book is from the 1880s and devoted to the quack science of phrenology. The owner of the book filled out his phrenological chart in the back, an earnest attempt to diagnose personality not too much different than many of the quizzes you see linked online. There’s another on the shelf, titled The Complete Story of the San Francisco Horror, a compilation of stories from the 1906 earthquake. After I bought it I found an envelope of World War II food rationing stamps stuck between the pages.
These books aren’t really anything special or valuable. But they are books; a physical object that can be touched, smelt, handled. They are real things, and bear the marks of previous owners and readers, passing along something more than just their text.
There are some technophile prophets who go about proclaiming the death of print; we’re told eBooks will be the future! Books are of the past! But will that ever happen?
A while back, I got in a discussion about music—specifically folk music, occasioned by the death of Pete Seeger. A large part of what made folk music boom in the way it did in the 1950s and 60s was a modern sense that there is something lost in our world, that there should be a return to an earlier, more authentic expression of culture. In different ways, that sense shows up in Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Tolkien, Lewis, the new urban agriculture movements, even the way we slap fake vintage filters on digital photography. It’s a powerful drive and while there’s obvious falsity and sentimentality in some expressions of it, I think the yearning for it comes from a sincere and true part of the human soul. It’s the longing for transcendence.
Transcendence is often thought of in purely spiritual or intellectual terms, but as we can see in our sacraments, the Church grounds transcendence in earthly and earthy forms: bread, wine, incense, oil, fire. Reaching beyond technology and modernity to try to grasp at physical forms that give meaning to transcendental longing is an urge that can’t really be shaken off. (That’s one reason I think more traditional approaches to the liturgy are so powerful.)
Sure, the eBook will have its place; perhaps replacing the disposable pulp paperback. And you can find elaborately worked and artistically beautiful covers for e-readers, another sign that the merely technical doesn’t satisfy. But I don’t think any serious book lover will be ever content with a non-physical copy of some of his favorite titles. We need that something to hold as we grasp at the words we read, something to feel, and something to pass along. We need “grounded transcendence”. And printed books can help fill that need.