This lovely article by author Carmel Bird appeared in Saturday’s Age:
October 3, 2009
IN A photograph of the Obama family at home, taken by Annie Leibovitz in October 2004, surrounded by images of Abraham Lincoln and Muhammad Ali, there lies, all alone on a clear surface, front and centre, a slightly dog-eared copy of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It’s a cosy, informal family portrait, suggesting maybe that just before it was shot one of the parents was reading the storybook to the little girls. The book, flat on the table, draws the eye, and suggests that the photographer has interrupted an intimate and blissful moment, a moment familiar to many parents and teachers.
I treasure memories of lying in my father’s arms while he read from a green-covered volume of The Wind in the Willows, a book that gradually fell to pieces from loving over-use. The books I read to my daughter have a glow and resonance in my mind and heart. Some are still in either my possession or hers, but sometimes I think of one, and if it is lost, if it is out of print, I rush to find a second-hand copy. These replacements have a special quality of their own; they are part of a treasury of reclaimed and revisited moments of intimate bliss.
I recently got a replacement copy of a picture book called Miss Jaster’s Gardenby N.M. Bodecker. This is a story about a hedgehog that becomes part of the garden to the extent that flowers grow in his prickles. A rather poignant thing about the book I got is the inscription in handwriting — “To Grayson from his loving Aunt Jeni and Uncle Brett, for Christmas 2003”. But then maybe our old copy has wound up on someone else’s nursery bookshelf. I hope so.
On the day I received Miss Jaster’s Garden in the mail, I was writing a speech to give at the launch of Glenda Millard’s gorgeous new picture book, Isabella’s Garden. And I was listening to the radio. There I heard someone speaking about the coming disappearance of books as paper objects. They will be replaced by electronic devices of various marvellous kinds. This assertion seems to be quite widespread, but was strangely at odds with my pleasure in the two picture books on my desk.
In lots of ways I am old-fashioned, but I am also pleased to use quite a bit of modern technology. I don’t deny that there are and will be ways of reading that do not rely on blocks of paper covered in black type. I read things on the web and I often enjoy the experience. But if books as books are going to disappear, what will replace those Wind in the Willows/Charlotte’s Web moments that nourish the love between adults and children, and that sow the seeds of storytelling and language?
Does it matter? I think it does. I was reading How Fiction Works by James Wood. Referring to the “cherry-coloured twist” in Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, Wood says: “Reading this to my daughter for the first time in 35 years, I was instantly returned, by the talismanic activity of that cherry-coloured twist, to a memory of my mother reading it to me.” The book, the language, the melody of it all, are part of the embrace of the mother for the son, the son in turn for his daughter. The stories of Potter are not simply a collection of disembodied words, but are part of something organic and emotional that goes where electronic reading devices possibly cannot go.
And it’s not just the children’s storybooks that will disappear with the book, so will the beloved physicalities and idiosyncrasies of all books. I have a lot of books, although I could not be described as a “collector”. They line the walls of several rooms and make me feel at home. In a mild and haphazard way, I am a collector of different editions of The Great Gatsby. I love all the different cover designs. Apart from fascinating differences, each edition brings back memories of when and where I got it, when and where I read it.
There is a moment, perhaps more touching now than when it was written, when Nick encounters the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library. The man asserts with amazed excitement that the books on the shelves are not fakes. “Absolutely real — have pages and everything.”
So altogether it seems to me it will be a sad world if books are completely replaced by other devices delivering text and information. Who would not want to see the pages turning, to hear the voice of their father intoning: “So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped.” The words are good, but my father’s voice coupled with the memory of the velvet autumn leaves on the armchair gives them a marvellous added resonance. Or if you are James Wood reading to your daughter, you can hear your mother in your own voice, possibly reading from your childhood version of the book: “Everything was finished except just one single cherry-coloured button-hole, and where that button-hole was wanting there was pinned a scrap of paper with these words — in little teeny-weeny writing — NO MORE TWIST.”
You can find the texts of Potter and Kenneth Grahame on the web, where you might have the added entertainment of pop-ups offering you lovely Russian girls or cures for blindness, but I believe that nothing can really replace your mother or father holding you in their arms while they read you the story from the dog-eared little book.
Technology and e-books have their place, but who can deny the pleasure of reading and sharing a book that you can touch?