The book, a paperback edition of Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, was cradled by the young man in the palms of his hands. He sat with dignity, his formal countenance and delicate presence transcended the mediocrity of his surroundings. At first glance it seemed he was simply holding a closed book with his head bowed in observation. A closer investigation revealed that he was actually reading whilst holding the half opened book at various acute angles. He occasionally adjusted the angle to accommodate the location of the words he read on the page. At all times the book remained barely ajar, it gave the impression that the act of reading was a covert-like operation, a private moment of prayer in a public space. He defied the usual pitfalls of reading on public transit with stoicism, his focus on the book remained devout and he read without distraction from his environment. He maintained an honourable concentration amongst the digital din that permeated the train carriage. He appeared engrossed in study, or the ritual of study, his eyes scanned the page while his hands manoeuvred the book back and forth at varying angles. It was balletic and precise. I became engrossed in the whole procedure, deducing that the object of the ritual was to read with minimal wear to the book itself. This seemed a rather noble idea to me, to read books without leaving any personal marks on them.
As I left the train and rode the escalator to street level I recalled some of my old battered paperbacks sitting in my bookcases at home. The young man’s quixotic manner had pricked my conscience. Prominent in my mind was the old Signet Classic edition of The Idiot I read on an inter-railing trek around Europe in the 1980s. I brought it almost new at a second-hand bookstall by Victoria station just before departure, enchanted by the illustration on the front cover of Russian Orthodox spires. A month later that cover was ripped, creased, and stained. The book crushed and twisted by my knapsack’s lack of space. The spine looked like a narrow field that had been ploughed by my heavy handling and there were some serious water marks throughout on account of a violent rainstorm in Vienna. The unfortunate volume looked like it had been to war instead of a merry summer jaunt around the capitals of Europe! The habit of carrying books around wherever I go has stuck. It seems that the constant over the years is that I have always ventured outside with a book in my backpack. Even now, out of pure habit, before I leave home for the day I pluck a book (always a paperback) from my bookshelves to accompany me. I rarely read in public spaces, but that is not the point, the book that sits in my bag is there in the form of a talisman, for an unforeseen and unknown circumstance. It is there because it is a book. This need to carry books around with me is weighted in memory and experience; it also reflects the tatty shape of some of my paperbacks.
As I made my way home I felt shame at my ill-treatment of my books. I remembered a phase I went through where I would throw books I found disagreeable or frustrating. This unwelcome recollection brought a wince to the etched features of my face as I walked. My first, somewhat premature attempt at On the Road brought about many moments of frustration. I was young and impatient, I wasn’t quite ready to invest the time to comprehend Kerouac’s frenzied syncopations, and my wrongdoing had more to do with regrettable timing than malicious intent. The poor book (an ugly1980s Penguin edition with a very kitsch illustrated cover) spent more time flying through the air and crashing against walls than it did being read. Thinking about it now I am not sure what I found more disagreeable, Sal Paradise’s style of narration or the depiction of him on the front cover. The book defeated me and I was unable to summon the patience to finish it. My younger self struggled with that book for months, disappointed and saddened that ‘cool’ didn’t necessarily translate into readable. I once tried to symbolically leave it on a bus only to be chased down the aisle by a Good Samaritan who’d thought that I absentmindedly forgot to pick it up from the seat. The book is still sitting on my bookshelf and over the years I have, I regret to say, not been able to summon the inclination or patience to read it
I retrieved both books from my solid pine bookcase when I got home, sat at the table and had my thoughts flooded with memories. The books were like old photographs of vaguely forgotten times. The misshapen volumes revealed the footprints of my past. The faded stains, the creases ingrained and the partly healed wounds gave the old books a sense of belonging. I got an intense recollection of another time has I leafed through the books, the potency of which startled me. I tried to imagine the books without the blemishes of use, without the torn covers and rippled spines, without the ‘beauty will save the world’ quote annotated in my youthful scrawl on the title page of The Idiot, without the dried brittle pages and without the indentations sculpted by walls and steel-framed knapsacks. It’s the bruises of contact that freezes time. Without the markings of human experience these books would be just mass market preservation pieces. In defence of my battered paperbacks I echoed the questions of Adso in The Name of the Rose-‘What should be done? Stop reading, and only preserve?’
The advent of the e-book phenomenon has confounded Adso’s concerns to the point where now the cry is stop preserving, and just read. As the book replaced the scroll we are being told that we are on the verge of an era where the screen is about to replace the page. The e-reader’s cost and consumer status will eradicate the impatience that results in books being thrown or discarded on buses; it will also seal the fate of the contentious issues of annotations and marginalia and what about the artwork of the cover? – changing its format might bring forth similar consequences that suffocated the creative life out of the artwork of the album when CD replaced vinyl. All this will be seen as minor blips in the healthy and appealing march of progress. It happened in music when digital replaced analogue, and in photography where the instant hit and convenience of digital photography as made chemically based film almost extinct; and now it is the world of publishing that is bracing itself for the engulfing wave of change. In music and photography the advancement brought convenience at the expense of quality – I would challenge any technophile to listen to Bach’s Cello Suites or Goldberg Variations on CD and then on vinyl and deny the superiority of the earlier technology. It is not because of nostalgia that we are seeing vinyl being sold in music stores again; the demand reveals certain consumers are beginning to ‘smell the coffee’. Similarly, am I alone in recognising the shallowness of digital photography up against the depth of a well taken photograph on film?
These are mute points when argued against the convenience of instant gratification that motivates the mainstream today. The e-book sits on the threshold of epoch making change. How can any avid reader scoff at a technology that can access a book at the click of a button? Whilst not being too sure of the implications of reading a screen instead of a page, the deliverance of this new format of reading is upon us and the smugness of the powers at the cutting edge suggest that the deluge is imminent. However, my love of the book is a knot tied in a rich fabric that has been weaved on words, thoughts, meditation and experience. This lofty knot tied and tightened over the years in the theatre of memory is too complex and personal to just loosen and undo for the sake of the collective process of change. No doubt in the near future I will purchase an e-reader; I must admit the concept of downloading newspapers and periodicals is too enticing, but there will always be a book in my bag wherever I go.
The young man on the train reading Simone Weil appeared almost frozen in the moment, the tranquil dance-like movement of his hands felt like the measurement of time in the stillness of contemplation. In retrospect I wonder, as I sat observing him on the train, if I was in the presence of an experiment in composition – Still Life in the ever-changing landscape of the everyday. In the blur of perpetual movement, in the fog of progress, in the sea of disconnected faces and in the busy coming and going of a train carriage a young man serenely sits reading a book called The Need for Roots.