A Wonderland of Books
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is something special about an old, leather bound book.
They are rarely found alone but stand row upon row shelf upon shelf often encased in glass in a large room. Their shiny leather covers and spines are embossed with gold letters muted only by traces of fingers that have idly reflected on their titles. These lucky ones have been cared for and admired, but often they just stand in silence as if to impress us. Others, let’s call them the forgotten ones, are trapped on the back of a shelf and are often encased in dust. They are shabby with frayed, soft corners and cracked covers where the leather has dried out. Their pages are decorated with yellow spots and the paper crackles where a circular dark stain commemorates the placement of a maladjusted wine glass or cup of coffee. But perhaps after all they are the lucky ones; their condition suggests that they have been taken off the shelf many times to be read.
Now, reach out for one of these leather books, shiny or shabby, any one will do. Open it and listen. You may hear the spine creak, just a little. If the gold leaf on the edges has stuck together carefully slide your finger between the pages to free them. Now bury your nose in the book and sniff. Sniff the leather, sniff the paper. It will smell a bit musty but what does that smell tell you? Is it the scent of tobacco? Or perhaps there’s a hint of lavender? Let your thoughts roam. Imagine a coal fire, its flames flickering and sparkling. See the curtains drawn against a cold wintry night. Hear the Grandfather clock, tick tock. See the wisps of pipe smoke, whiskers stained yellow, a gruff voice in disagreement with a passage in the book. See a lady quietly reading to a child.
Look now at the front piece of the book. Is there an inscription? It may be a child’s scrawny writing indicating a school year or class, finished off with a blot of ink. Is it a book of fairy tales, Grimm or Andersen, passed down from Aunt Sophie to niece or nephew? Is it a scholarly work inscribed to acknowledge a prize, a graduation, a retirement? Or is it a book of poems from husband to wife or lover? Is there a book mark? It’s usually a thin trail of ribbon a little frayed at the edges. Or perhaps you’ll find a theatre ticket, a dried flower, a dance card, or a letter. Do they mark the page where someone stopped turning, a story left unread, but why there?
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Lay that leather book down now and look in another room on another shelf. Look for the smaller, lighter, paperback books. They don’t stand so well in neat, cultured rows but flop over. There are so many of them that the shelf overflows and they have to be piled one on top of the other. Pick up one of the top books. Open it and sniff. Its scent differs from its leather bound colleagues. It’s a mixture of sweet and stale, perhaps coffee shops and trains and unmade beds. Marks indicate many fingers and thumbs. Turned down corners are the bookmarks or maybe you’ll find bus tickets or a receipt hidden between the pages. There are few inscriptions in these paperback books but sometimes a pink or green highlighter pen has defaced a page. We wonder why a previous reader thought it was important to mark that particular line?
The paperback book is functional, its popularity is measured in the creases of its spine or in the faded colours of the cover which is often creased or torn where it has caught the edge of a pocket or bag. They are popular, affordable, and accessible to everyone.
People scorned their arrival but soon accepted their convenience and price. The books journeyed from person to person from house to flat to charity shop and back to another house; their life moving ever faster just like ours. But more people were reading and that was good.
Now we are offered another choice, its home is not necessarily on the bookshelf. It could be anywhere, in your backpack, handbag or pocket. It’s compact, it’s electronic and it stores hundreds of books which means there will always be something to read, anywhere, at the press of a button. Click on a word and you can find its meaning and origin without reaching for a dictionary, click on an icon and listen to the sound of poetry or music which has be added to enhance your experience of reading. Or follow a website that offers you a new story every day with adventure, drama, romance or fantasy; stories you may never have thought of reading before, but now you can — free. Some say e-readers won’t last, that they are not proper books and mourn the possible demise of the paperback, just as others in an earlier age mourned the loss of real leather. It’s true, the electronic reader has no scent, it doesn’t creak when you open it, there are no pencil marks or bookmarks. It has no soul or history — yet.
There are so many types of book available for us today but Reader, whether it’s bound in leather, covered with glossy paper or lights up electronically, they all have a story to tell. Read about the poor man, the adventurer, the princess. Cry over a lost love, laugh out loud or ponder over a sentence. Sit in a room a thousand years ago, or visit the future in a time machine. Hear a young boy ask for more, or see Manderley again, and of course hope that in the end the governess marries her hero.