Paper Traces

Recently my boyfriend and I broke up. When the recriminations and the laments were done, my parting request was that he return my copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. He’d borrowed it months earlier, promising to return it swiftly but instead inching through each essay with painful protraction. In the weeks that we’d been falling apart, I had hinted how much I wanted it back, but he kept insisting that he only had one chapter to go; ‘Goodbye to All That’, the final, my favourite, and as lonely as I felt I couldn’t refuse him that. But when he left I demanded the book like a madwoman, as if him keeping it any longer was an intimacy I couldn’t bear.

That morning I sat on my front stoop under grey skies, sobbing and chain-smoking and reading ‘Goodbye to All That’ over and over. In the throws of that narcissistic grief which wells in a broken heart, Didion’s wistful account of losing it in her late 20s was the only thing that seemed to make sense. But as much as I was seeking comfort in that familiar narrative — what Didion calls “the stories we tell ourselves in order to live” — I also needed the battered book that contained it; its creased pages, its peeling cover, its manically underlined sentences. It felt just as important to retrieve the object itself, as much as the beloved words inside, as some sentimental icon of what I would no longer allow that boy to hold.

What I wanted to read over and over again was the part where Didion describes “the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring.” But what leapt out instead were her regrets, which at some point I’d highlighted with similar vehemence: “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

When we take part in literary debates surrounding paper versus digital, traditionalists tend to fall back on nostalgic reasons for their allegiance to physical books. So often we fetishize the object itself — the weight of a book in our hands, the smell of its musty pages (a recent scientific study by a team of chemists from University College London and the University of Ljubljana found that this is in fact the smell of death) — when we know that what matters most is the stories between the covers.

But for those of us who have grown up with print, and amassed sizeable paper armies over the course of our lives, these objects are imbued with emotional resonances. The narratives that have affected us most deeply we associate with certain times in our lives, the book holding some trace of a past that now lies beyond our reach. What I cling to is not the object but the parts of myself, of my history, that it represents.

Writer and critic Luc Sante discusses his lifelong relationship with books in his essay, ‘The Book Collection That Devoured My Life’. While he claims not to be a bibliophile, Sante has amassed a stockpile that seems obsessive by most standards. Recently he built continuous 25-foot-long bookshelves in his basement office, organised chronologically, which run from one end of the room to the other. This isn’t a ruffle of his intellectual peacock feathers (“It’s rather a closed circle; I impress myself”), but instead a way of helping him write: “Books function as a kind of external hard drive for my mind — my brain isn’t big enough to do all the things it wants or needs to do without help. Optically scanning the shelves wakes up dormant nodes in my memory.” While Sante talks about this in an academic sense, this happens for me on a more personal register.

When I scan my bookshelves, it stirs up the memories around the stories; where I bought them, when I first read them, what they meant to me at that time. Those Henry Miller spines, all lined up in a dark row, that I read to impress a boy at university who proclaimed Miller was his favourite author — a statement that would now send me sprinting, but at 18 bestowed me with a few years of needless hurts. I flick past Charles Bukowski and I’m with my best friend from my early 20s on an achingly hot summer night, where we tried to sleep outside to get some relief but instead got drunk on cheap whisky and read each other misanthropic poems that affirmed our resent of the world. (That was a dependant and ultimately destructive relationship that imploded just in time.)

My inherited hardcover edition of John Fowles’ The Magus, it’s decaying spine held on by a few threads, holds inherited memories of my mother in her own early 20s. She’s sitting in the sun on Corfu, engrossed in the novel’s labyrinthine betrayals, which she would only ever say made her feel “so strange”; and then there’s me at 15, in an itchy armchair in my bedroom, reading that same dog-eared copy and trying to understand why. I could go on forever. When you think of books in this way, a collection becomes a cemetery — wall after wall of shrines to ghosts.

For us gravediggers, collecting books can become a sickness. Sante tells of the painful process of culling his library, discovering exactly how many books that he owned in languages he couldn’t read and how many copies of André Breton’s Nadja he’d carted around for years (five, each a different edition). In Ivor Indyk’s excellent essay ‘The Book and Its Time’, he describes the collector Jacques Bonnet whose library runs some 40,000 volumes: “It is the repository of his emotional life and the expansion of his memory; it protects him, and gives him an extraordinary sense of power.” But this also hints at the collector’s propensity for obsession, investing these objects with talismanic potential: “Books are particularly suited to express the pathology of hoarding because each contains a world, the idea of which may be cherished without ever being realised.” For us gravediggers, parting with our collections signifies a kind of death.

The benefits of e-books are indisputable — anyone who attempts to do so is clinging on to an even more elusive past. (Jonathan Franzen’s fear of e-books’ impermanence is surely the novelist’s fear of death, terrified that in a world without print he will not be granted immortality through his words.) And the list of these benefits is long: they are better for the environment, reduce costs for publishers and readers, make out-of-print titles accessible, allow publishers to release stories of lengths that were previously prohibited by print’s demands, and allow us to purchase books instantaneously. I’m about to buy an e-reader myself. But the taphophile in me would be devastated if I ever lost these paper traces, these shrines to my past, that I can kneel before whenever I feel the need.

One day I will pull down my copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I’ll be on that stoop in winter, remembering the boy I already knew that I would never marry in the spring.

I have known Rebecca Harkins-Cross since she was a teenager, babysitting my daughter. She is the daughter of two of my best friends, a photographer and an artist. Even then, the school essays she occasionally showed me were bright, and she impressed me as a devout and intense perfectionist. She finished high school with such high results that she became a local hero for a while, receiving the Australian Students Prize, and received an Access Scholarship to study Arts (Media and Communications) at the University of Melbourne. She won the Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence in each year of her undergraduate studies, and later the Percival Serle Prize for her English honours thesis. These days she is a freelance arts writer, whose work has appeared in MeanjinThe Big Issue, Crikey and The Lifted Brow, amongst other publications. This year she won the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film from the Australian Film Critics’ Association, and received an Artstart grant from the Australia Council. She’s also the Project Coordinator of The Under Age.

Even I, who have known her for so long, and knew she would produce something good for the eVolution forum, was breathtaken by her essay. It is as searingly honest, as intensely intelligent and as beautiful as she is.

My personal favourite of the series.

12 Responses

    1. Vauny says:

      I agree with just about everything you said Rebecca, before I went overseas a few years ago I put my books into storage – working on the plan that when I got back and moved out of my parents house it would be easier to have them preboxed (also because I knew my parents were going to clean out my room and I can see old books being something my dad would throw out without a second thought) but then I moved to my tiny unit where my partner had already filled all our bookshelves with his books. Since by this point I was big on ebooks I wasn’t too upset – my books could remain in storage until we moved somewhere that had space for them.

      Then about a month ago a friend of my dads wanted to borrow some of my manga volumes and jovels for her daughter, since the girl was only 14 dad wanted me to reccommend which series were suited to her (I’ll point out here that my complete manga collection was a couple hundred tankoban volumes and my novel collection was probably about the same size, and not all of these manga and novels were suited to a young girl) while I was sorting through the books for her I found myself creating 3 piles. One was safe for the girl, one was stuff which might have been a bit iffy (things like Anne bishop and ikki tousen) and a third pile which was books that I’d found which I wanted physical copies of again – even though by this point I’d read the ebook versions several times over. I quickly realised my pile was becoming much too high so I culled out all the manga and the longer series. Even so I still lugged 2 green bags full of books home with me that evening.

      I find it really frustrating when people think that if you like ebooks, then you can’t enjoy print books, I still love my print books and I still read them, but the convenience of ebooks can’t be beat for practical reading.

    2. maureen mcCarthy says:

      What a beautiful piece Rebecca! Wow. Everything you said so beautifully hit home as true to me. I hardly ever read a whole book right through a second time preferring to keep it near by to flip through and consult – like a friend. Sometimes I write out sentences and paragraphs just to hold them closer.But it can work the other way too. When I finally got to the stage of wanting to get on with my life after the marriage break up years ago, I set about getting rid of stuff. furniture, clothes as a well as a million other things that accumulate around a family of five over the years. Along with all the other stuff, I sold and gave away boxes and boxes of books Before discarding each book I said ‘thank you but I’m never going to read you again so … goodbye’ It felt wonderful actually. Of course there were quite a few that I simply couldn’t let go and they are with me still. ‘The World According to Garp” by John Irving is one. ‘The man who loved Children’ by Christina Stead another. Quite a few really All of Joyce Carol Oats, Dorris Lessing and Brian Moore’s novels and …anyway thanks for the great article
      Maureen McCarthy

    3. It seems to me you have convincingly expressed the value of both forms of medium, in a first class piece. I enjoyed reading all of it.

    4. I love the notion that it’s necessary to shed books as a way of shaking off the past. (Or at least I love the idea of other people doing it.) That image of you giving each a tiny eulogy is so beautiful, Maureen.

      My Dad had initially wanted to be a writer, but after studying literature at university decided he would become a painter instead. In some symbolic demonstration of his resolve, he gave away every book he owned bar Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ (his favourite book, though for the life of me I can’t work out why — I could never finish it) and a collection of poetry.

      Such powerful gestures, which I find too terrifying to contemplate myself.

    5. Becky I remember a guy at university- a pretentious but extremely attractive guy, who had shed his vast collection of books as a dramatic sloughing off of all the mental cobwebs- he was also doing Reichian (?) scream therapy which apparently involved a lot of actual cathartic screaming, and ever since, these two things have merged in my mind – the abandoning of all books and the screaming. Maybe that is why I can throw away throwaway books, but never books I love, and in some cases i need them in both countries and on my kindle, so that I can get to them if I need them.

    6. Deb says:

      Gravediggers unite! Rebecca, what a great post. I’m a hoarder, not only of books but all kinds of other stuff as well. I go through a purge once a year and if I haven’t read it, worn it, used it or whatever, out it goes to the opshop. The hard bit is of course the books. How can I possibly get rid of the memories.

      There are certain books that will forever remain on my shelves, but if I read one and know that I will never read it again, I usually get rid of it. The exceptions are those authors I collect, Isobelle Carmody, Robin Hobb, Sheri Tepper, just to name a few.

    7. Paul Collins says:

      Good point regarding memories within books, Rebecca. Most of us can remember where we bought a particular book and the reason behind the purchase. I wonder if this nostalgia will accompany e-books. I have to smile at the thought of someone thinking, “Ah yes, I remember the day I downloaded 50 Shades of Grey.” It’s simply impersonal, perhaps made more so by the fact that there is no human contact in purchasing an e-book. Of course, we Luddites from yesteryear may well lament the good ol’ days of social intercourse — it’s just a shame that the evolving generations will never experience the joy of it. Oh, I just thought of one positive for e-books. At least we’ll never know that “lending” a book is never seeing it again.

    8. Jan Stolba says:

      Beautiful and touching essay! Makes me think – in what new and unknown ways will people start projecting their ceaseless need to cling to the world and eternal fear of letting it go? Hard to imagine, but something new will always emerge… We were lucky, we had books…

    9. Jo Turner says:

      The connections you draw upon in your essay are marvellous, and I am drawn to think about the physicality of the book itself and what it means to people and myself. This has been pointed out so eloquently by you and many others on this site. I always find it interesting to see what the metaphysical connection is between the individual and the physical object of the book. What makes the connection? Is it emotion, or the memories or something else we just cannot quite put our finger on? I know this connection quite well in one form. I am forever linked to my mother by her own books. She told me once that she was glad I was reading these books because the books described a life that was similar to her own childhood. Even though my mother is gone I will be forever connected to her because I feel like I am getting to know my mother before she was my mother, something which I know not every person can experience and so I treasure it.
      It also makes me wonder however, that if our connections to the physical object are simply more than about the physical object, rather with our connection with it and our soul or identity, then will the e-book ever have this same effect? Many people appear to lean towards the idea that it won’t, because there is something more substantial to cling to in the physical object, being able to flick the pages to our favourite part or the end because we can. However, what if there is still a possibility to make this connection with an e-book? What if the e-book just have not been around long enough for us to make these connections yet? The problem is we don’t really know because we are still only in the present, and we will not know until we get somewhere in our future, and find out if we really have made the connection or not.

    10. Daniel Reed says:

      A really well written piece Rebecca,

      I agree with you in that stories can somehow take you back down your personal timelines, much in the same way that songs and smells can. In the past I have found myself reading fiction and inadvertently picturing characters looking like the people who are in my life at the time. Maybe they were teachers, friends or colleagues, but the fact that they were in my mind for some reason led them to subconsciously being cast in a role as a character in a story. The physical book, acting as a vessel for these stories becomes the emotive symbol of the time in which they were read.

      I also agree with your description of the benefits of the ebook. What I believe the ebook will do is introduce a hierarchy into the value of the book. Perhaps this hierarchy already exists in the difference between the hard and soft cover printed book. I think that I will be the type of consumer that will read the majority of books on an e reader, but I’ll spend that bit extra on the printed editions of my favourite authors. If I really can’t wait for a paperback release, I will continue to fork out even more for the hard cover. Overall this added choice is a good thing for the reader.

      The physical book has had too much of a part of our history to disappear suddenly. I think if anything, the growing popularity of the ebook will somehow make the traditional book seem more special.

    11. An absolutely gorgeous post, Rebecca, full of feeling and beautiful clarity too. I very much identify with what you say. And as well as my own emotional resonances to books that are associated with experiences or people in my life, I love being a kind of witness to other people–like finding inscriptions in second-hand books, or in one instance when i bought a 1792 edition of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tales(she was the creator of Beauty and the Beast), finding a page at the end where someone of the time had been practising their handwriting, beautiful sepia ink but touchingly blotchy attempts–the centuries just seemed to blow away as I imagined a young girl bent over the page, trying so hard to get her writing right.

    12. Peter says:

      I know exactly what you mean. Ebooks and kindles and the like are incredibly useful and efficient however if at all possible I prefer the physicality of a book. My bookshelves are similarly laden with memories. Whenever I read Garth Nix’s Sabriel for instance I am instantly transported back to when I was fifteen trying to discover who I was. Simmilarly when I re-read the pages of Isobelle Carmody’s The Gathering, certain pages are warped from when I cried like a baby (quite a feat for a thirteen year old boy) over certain tragic parts of the story that mirrored simmilar events in my life. Books don’t just hold their stories, but all the memories we associate with them. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in this thought. It was a pleasure reading this.