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Book ’Em

The 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 are safe.

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 abuse.

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 distinction.

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.

Books 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.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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