Thursday, January 16, 2014

Books, embodiment, and physical change

I borrowed a book from a dear friend, the mother of my godson, last weekend.  Actually, we exchanged books - my sister had just sent me as a late birthday present Enid Bagnold's The Squire, and I was delighted to share it.  My friend pulled her book out of her bag and handed it to me a bit sheepishly, a bit proudly.  "You can tell this is one of my favorites," she said, "because it's all wrinkly."  She'd read it in the bath, and the steam had made the edges of the pages all wavy.

My most frequent - not my most vivid, but my most comfortably familiar - memories as a child are of curling up on the couch with a Redwall book.  My parents had this squashy dark blue couch in three sections, and each of the edge sections had a lever that would raise up a footrest.  Sometimes I'd pull the lever and lean back, but more often, I'd simply switch on the lights - by both ends of the couch stood one of those lamps with three individual, directed light bulbs - fold my legs under me, and pull a blanket over my lap.  I'd lose myself in Brian Jacques' world for hours on end; my parents always knew where to find me.  And my paperback Redwall books would get terribly worn out, to the point where I needed replacements for one or two.  It wasn't because the bindings broke or the pages fell out, but because I liked how smooth it felt when you ran your fingers along the edges of the pages near the upper right corner.  I'd absentmindedly stroke my pages while I read, and over time, that corner of all of my books would fluff out and eventually the book itself would start to break down.

Books aren't just the source of mental stimulation.  We're not disembodied eyes and brains.  Books are physical.  You interact with them.  You hold them, you turn their pages, you accidentally break their bindings, you accidentally fold them or rip them or drop a spot of jam on them.  You worry that you won't be able to keep a favorite copy forever, that it'll fall apart before its time.  You carefully remove the jackets from hardcovers so they won't get creased, and occasionally misplace one by the time you go to put the book back on the shelf.  You stuff books into your bag, and rejoice when you find that perfect magical purse that looks really small but will hold any book you want to take with you, to your spouse's eternal surprise.

Our use of books changes them.  Maybe you write your name in it, maybe you mark favorite passages or underline words you want to look up or remember, maybe you like stroking that smooth spot on the pages, maybe you read them in the bath and let the pages get all wrinkly.  Books are objects, treasured in part because of how they're constructed or how they look, but I think there's something really sad about an absolutely pristine book on a shelf that has clearly never been opened.

And on a physical level, our use of books changes us.  Of course a good book can challenge how we think or open us up to new experiences.  But reading itself is an embodied activity.  A book cover can be sharp or rough or dusty; its pages can give us paper cuts.  And not everyone has the physical strength to even hold a book - that, to me, is one of the supreme triumphs of a Kindle, the way it opens the world of reading to people who can't hold a book up to read it.

It's kind of funny that my friend loaning me a book with wrinkled pages got me thinking about embodiment and physical change, because after I started reading it, Beth Ann Fenelly's Great With Child, a series of letters to a young mother reflecting on pregnancy and motherhood, I realized that the book itself is deeply concerned with embodiment and physical change, on improvisation and flexibility, on the whole range of emotions and experiences that comes with parenting.  I can't wait to have a mini book club with her as we discuss our swapped books, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.  I wonder, what are your most vivid memories of books as objects?  Did you ever destroy a book like I did through excessive physical affection?  Are any favorite books forever linked with a particular place in your memory?

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