An Archeology of Books

Shira Eliassian, Barnard College


I love books. I don’t mean just reading books. I mean that I love books as objects. I’ve grown accustomed to the excitement I feel at the beginning of every semester when I can finally rip open a fresh Amazon package of course books. I love feeling the weight of a new book in my hand, and noticing the way its pages are perfectly cut and sewn—or more often glued—into the spine. I love inhaling the starchy, woody scent of the clean pages, and feeling the cool, smooth texture of a matte cover. As I walk from the mailroom back to my dorm with an armful of books, I am filled with excitement for all the stories waiting to be heard.

But as I sit here now, in the twilight of my undergraduate years, I’m thinking less about the pureness of an unmarked book, and more about the white creases that line the spines of the books I’ve treasured most. I’m looking at my bookshelf, organized by size, publisher, author’s last name, and title, staring at some of the most important texts both inside and outside the Western literary cannon, wondering if any of them really matter. Of course, I am in part referring to the all too familiar anxiety that humanities majors experience on a regular basis—namely, whether it was overly indulgent, irresponsible, and short-sighted to spend four years reading novels. But at the moment, I happen to be less concerned about the future of my income, and more concerned about the future of the book as a physical object.

I’m worried because we now live in a world not of pages, but of screens. We go to sleep to the rectangular glow of iPhones in the dark, and wake up to their beckoning alarm in the morning. Our relationships and social networks inhabit both real and virtual worlds. At any given moment, we’re multi-tasking with two or three screens in front of our faces. We check the time on our phones rather than wristwatches. Hell, we even have wristwatches that use the same screens that make up our phones and laptops.

I bring up the ubiquity of screens not for the sake of lamenting the “vapid” lifestyle of so-called millennials. I am more than willing to accept these screens as a basic fact of our lives; this is a technology that demands a healthy relationship of dependence. I mention the screens only because I am scared we are transitioning into a world where physical books are becoming extinct. When I was in high school, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 was a thought-provoking dystopian novel. But after the liquidation of the Borders bookstore franchise in 2011, Bradbury’s world has started to feel eerily familiar. Bookshelves filled with material objects are being replaced by downloaded PDFs, Kindles, and iBooks. Where’s the incentive to buy or borrow a physical book if, with the mere click of a button, you can download it onto a screen? In a world that is going virtual, do physical books really matter anymore?

I want to go out on a limb here and say that they do. I can’t make any definitive claims that reading from a physical book is the only way to truly immerse yourself in a story. But I am willing to conjecture that for many people my own age it is difficult to read from a screen without getting distracted. Screens are places where things move quickly, where we are used to flipping back and forth between various web pages, word documents, and PDFs. It’s a place where we expect notifications, and where the appetite of a wandering thought is quickly satiated by a Google search or the opening of a Facebook tab. Rather than maintaining our focus for an extended period, technology allows us to multitask and juggle three or four activities at once.

Reading a novel, on the other hand, tests our ability to concentrate. It invites us to shut off all the screens that incessantly beg for our attention and inhabit someone else’s world. It asks that we listen to one person’s voice not just for two minutes, or even for twenty minutes, but for one or two hours. The author requests this generous act of selflessness, but also offers us an opportunity to exchange the demands of our present moment for a different kind of presence, one that allows us to sit calmly and quietly with ourselves, our thoughts, and the simple pages of a book.

Reading from a physical book also gives us an opportunity to learn about ourselves. When I open up my copy of Anna Karenina, a book I happen to have read more than once in college, I can find traces of myself in the margins. I recognize my sophomore self in the black ballpoint scribbles about Anna “struggling to balance love w/ purpose.” I can watch this sophomore evolve into a senior who, now preferring gel pen, thinks of Anna’s inability to be both Vronsky’s lover and a mother as a reflection of Tolstoy’s preoccupation with the constraints of the physical body. These notes scribbled in blue ink mark “links between sex, religion, and physical labor,” and wonder how all of these experiences bring characters some sort of inexpressible, transcendent happiness. Through an archaeology of the margins, I learn about my consistent interest in the problems posed by the body, but I also see how that interest transforms from a concern with the transgressiveness of adultery, to a curiosity about the ways in which the body and soul can be unified.

Physical books make it possible to preserve and recover these parts of our intellectual past. Screens, on the other hand, have not only unsettled the way we relate to the pace of our lives, but they have also unsettled the way we relate to our past selves. Our identities are inextricably tied up with technology. While Facebook’s most recent “memory” sharing feature has made it possible to forever cherish our most awkward moments from high school, I certainly hope there is more to one’s past identity than an archived social media presence.

Perhaps I find traces of my past self most often in the pages of an old book because, as an English major, I feel compelled to read with a pen in hand. But I think we always leave our mark on books, whether through visible notes in the margins, or invisible memories soaked into its pages. These marks never will threaten to disappear into virtual space. They will always leave behind memories of who we used to be. For me, reading books has been a way to breathe deeply, reflect, and resist losing myself to a world of screens that won’t stand still. Through tangible relationships with these physical objects, we can root ourselves in time and continue to trace the outlines of our ever-changing identities.