collapse of words is a conceited fiction
Words hold everything together.
Words connect everything.
—Arne Ruste, “Say More, Speak Like Rain”
Once I discovered it, I used to hang out in the Rare Book
room of my undergraduate university’s library. It was a quiet
place with a lot of wood and carpeting. The staff who worked
there looked a little bleary-eyed and pasty-faced, as if they
never fully emerged from the realm of Rare Books. And they
talked in tones so hushed and pedantic you could practically
hear the Harris tweed in their voices.
I remember it kind of scared me that I liked it so much there.
I didn’t want to become like one of the Rare Book room staffers,
using locutions like “It gives me pause . . . ” and “I’m not
fully persuaded . . . ” and looking like they never had sex.
On the other hand, they seemed to take great pleasure in books.
They took them seriously. They liked to handle them—carefully,
of course—and they seemed to esteem them, not only because
they were valuable, but because in these early- and first-edition
books, the authors seemed more vitally present than in the
orange-spined Penguin paperback editions.
I turned out to be more of a Penguin Editions girl than a
rare-book avatar. But I think the affection for both springs
from the same source: books as transitional objects.
Transitional objects are those fetishized blankets or stuffed
animals that are supposed to help kids transit from life in
the womb to life in the world. As long as their transitional
object is close at hand—or better yet, in their hand—they
My daughter Madeleine’s transitional object was a pale, unattractive,
acrylic plaid baby blanket sent by relatives from Nebraska.
And when she was old enough to be read stories, she would
run her nail up and down the zigzag stitching on one of the
mitered corners of the blanket binding while I read to her.
Reading and comfort went hand-in-hand.
I’m not sure we ever fully outgrow the need for transitional
objects. We need to hold things in our hands.
Books are great transitional objects. A book is something
you can hold, fold, fondle, sleep with, bathe with and take
to your office.
Who hasn’t slept at night with their bed full of books? Who
doesn’t keep books on their night tables along with the other
emoluments and accoutrements suitable for bedtime?
I know everybody has different ideas about how to behave with
the printed page. I always take off the dust jacket before
taking a book into the bath. (Wouldn’t wash your hair with
your hat on, would you?)
And it really hurts to see a book splayed out, face down,
forgotten, while its reader chats away on the telephone. Teenagers—not
to malign anyone I live with—are prone to this kind of book
But I asked a friend if I could borrow a book and, knowing
how I am with them, he gave me a list of do’s and don’t’s.
Thanks, but no thanks, I said.
I’m just not one of these don’t-fold-the-pages kind of people.
In order to be a real companion, a book has got to be able
to go places with you. What’s a well-loved book if it doesn’t
show some wear and tear? You remember The Velveteen Rabbit
and how the rabbit only became real after it was chewed up
and dog-eared? It’s the same with a well-loved book: an egg
yolk stain from a diner breakfast is a mark of affection and
I don’t understand this don’t-write-in-your-books mentality,
either. Underlining is therapeutic massage for the page. Marginalia
are little love notes. Or grievances. Intimate communications
with the text.
And if you go back and read the margin notes you made in books
you read years and years ago, you’re much less inclined to
loan them out. (You don’t want anyone knowing how stupid you
were when you were 20.) If you’re loaning out fewer books,
you’re also much less prone to losing them to readers like
you, yourself, who might be inclined to eat an especially
well-dressed Greek salad directly over your beloved copy of
Wide Sargasso Sea.
need the oils on our hands, the mildew in our basements, the
musty smells of our cars. And by books I mean books.
DVDs don’t yellow and lose their pages and crack their spines
the way a long-held book does. An online book pins you to
your chair, hand on your mouse like a subject in a Stanley
Milgram shock experiment. With a book on tape, you just sit
there, empty-handed—or with hands on the steering wheel, weaving
through traffic. Talk about attachment anxiety.
I’ve heard it said, probably by people who have little tactile
sense, that books will become obsolete because the technology
of information acquisition has become so sophisticated. But
I think that’s a pretty silly thought.
I remember when I first discovered the Hungarian poet, Miklos
Radnoti. I was working on a poetry journal putting together
an issue of his poetry so that it wouldn’t be forgotten.
Radnoti was shot by the Nazis in 1944 after years in the labor
camps. The poems that became his last collection were found
on little scraps of paper hidden in the pockets of the clothes
he wore on his death march. Some of the last things he held
in his hands were the tools used to write and to hold what
he had written. With his hands he held the story of the march
his dying feet were forced to make.
I think we’ll go on needing to handle books—making, selling,
sharing them or keeping them in rare-book rooms under lock
and key. That way we’ll know where they are when we need to
go and touch them—and assure ourselves that in the world outside
the womb there is something for our hands to hold.
contact Jo Page at email@example.com