The immutability of books.

Back in the Dark Ages, before the internet was invented, there used to be these strange things called books that people had to read to gain any knowledge about the world. Dude, they were like totally hands on. You had to turn these things called pages. Yeah, actually, really. You couldn’t even click on them, it was all handraulic stuff. What was worse was that you had to remember things from them – there was no favourites menu you could just add them to. You even had to have these crazy things called book shelves to store them.

To compound the agony, you had to buy them to read them, because they weren’t free, so as most people at the time were of modest means, to put it mildly, you had to be quite shrewd in judging which one of these book things to invest your valuable hard-earned pennies in from all those part-time jobs. Being a potless young lad in the foothills of my life, my means were pretty much non-existent. Libraries were useless and smelled as musty as most of the librarians in them, but with one notable exception as I recall, but she was very different for a ripe and ready young boyo simultaneously hungry in a lot of sudden handbrake turn directions as we all were at that tender age, who always timed his book checkouts to make sure she did his.

She was definitely into the women’s lib era of bra burning and under the bra-less wafer thin T-shirts she favoured had nipples that stuck out like twin football studs on a cold and frosty morning’s football game. She’d look at me, bang down especially hard using the checkout date stamp gadget, which would impart a slight almost imperceptible wobble of her torso as I watched, adolescent and boggle-eyed, her naturally well-endowed breasts wobbling from side to side. She was plenty and knew it, but I think it was a bright little moment of fun in her day working at such a crusty and boring job she was holding down comfortably with the little pinkie of her left hand.

I think it all traced back to me presenting the same book for yet another reborrow stamp and her asking why I was keeping it on what was almost a permanent checkout. Being young, stoopid and running out of excuses, I told her the truth – it made me sad, and more or less legged it in panic leaving the damn book behind. She had it there under the checkout desk on my next visit once I’d got over my shame at the funk and was forced to slink back in desperation for new reading material.

She always let me check out books for extended intervals with no fines and a knowing smile. ie borrow indefinitely. From the timestamps on the inside cover, nobody’d checked out that absolutely vital copy of a book about Asclepius in fifteen years, so not much harm was being done by depriving future generations of readers the type of obscure books I was interested in. She’d be the subversive inside the establishment at the time, though if I asked about a book she could tell me straight away if they had it or not without diving into the paper card index. We’re talking the pre-computer era where there were only eight of the things in the entire country and nobody quite knew what you’d use them for. Perhaps hammering in a nail or something like that.

She was a very competent librarian who was also an avid reader herself, rather than just another admin flunky punching a nine to five time card. She was casually aware of every damn book that was in the library. If I enquired after a book that wasn’t there, she’d initiate some arcane if not Gormenghast like process, and the book would be there for me via what she called an “off the books” process. I never knew it at the time, but she’d the kindest of hearts. It took me a while to realise that. Part of the just bloody well grow up process we’ve all been through.

Moving on from such fond memories, or should I say mammaries, was that you had to explore for yourself these book things, there was never a list of “helpful” suggestions under the title of you might also like. You were on your own Kiddo. Occasionally you’d find a footnote reference to another book, which you’d add to your mental list of books to be hunted down. My chances of ever finding them, never mind being able to afford them were minimal though. A print run is a print run, so there’d always be a finite number of any book that’d be printed and be therefore in circulation. There’d be a definite sense of triumph on those rare occasions in bagging your own copy of a desired book on your tick list.

But whatever, you gradually built up that store of books you loved. I mainly did it on a quite modest budget by having a Saturday circuit where I walked from one junk shop to another or flea markets that sold second-hand books. There were two huge bookseller shops in town, but apart from that being a long walk even for the walking dude, the prices of new books were well beyond my means at the time. I’m fortunate these days to live in a slightly sprawling home and have established a leisure reading room in it that’s got a very comfortable and well worn couch I refused to throw out on the last makeover and which I like to lay in while I’m reading.

The kids had all flown the nest and what was essentially their X-box gaming room was suddenly freed up, so I had one of those spring sleeves rolled up ideas of tidying up all the books strewn over all over the house into one room. I bought one of those flat pack book shelfs, assembled it and filled it up with assorted books in ten minutes. I’d barely made a dent in the job, so I ordered two more and filled them as well. I’ve run out of wall, so no more bookshelves, but because my wife and our kids are also avid readers, the house is still strewn with books. It’s not that we’re all Brainiacs, far from it, it’s just that we enjoy reading as a pastime.

Lots of assorted cushions, throws and a soft rug thrown over the rather harsh leather covering to make it warm to lay on in winter. It’s where I keep the record player and my vinyls. I’m not a hifi snob, but the richness of the sound knocks CDs sideways because to cram music onto them, they have to chop off the high and low frequency sounds, which makes the music sound slightly flat at times. With vinyl, you can listen to something like Bach’s Cello concerto and feel the vibrations on your face from the varnished wood of the instruments being played. You’d never get that from a CD.

The thing about books though is that they’re hardware. What’s on each page can’t be changed, can’t be magically re-edited to say something slightly different. Yes, there might be a second or third edition published, but you’ve still got that first edition with the author’s original thoughts on it. What I’m increasingly finding with the internet is that articles are subtly amended to reflect changes in current attitudes. I suppose Wikipedia is the classic example of constantly rewriting controversial topics to more closely conform to ever more rapidly changes in what’s approved of by the featherweight arbiters of history. Orwellian. They call them edit wars and they can get vicious.

Abraham Lincoln once said you can call a dog’s tail an extra leg if you want, but at end of day, it’ll still have four, not five legs no matter what way you wish it to be. Trying to amend or obliterate historical facts that offend your sensitivities is infantalising your view of the real world. One day, the wake up call will arrive and the longer you delay it, the harsher its arrival will be.

They’re also a perfect answer to a current trend called cancel culture, which in essence is the latter day Goths and Visigoths of civilisation trying to obliterate historical events that don’t concur with their oh so perfect politically correct modern day morality. Pulling down statues of historical figures just like ISIS dynamiting ancient monuments in Nineveh is next door to the book burning orgies the Nazis indulged in. As the German poet Heinrich Heine observed with a certain deadly prescience a century and a half before it came to pass, when they burn books, they will too in the end burn people. He proved to be tragically right with the coming into being of places like Auschwitz.

The other thing about a book is that unlike a web site and its entire contents, they don’t simply disappear overnight without any warning – they stay on your book shelf for decades without going walkabout. You can take it down from the bookshelf, reread, think about what it’s saying and even argue with it. A book doesn’t talk over you when you’re marshalling a refutation of its contents.

Apart from a few blessed books I took the financial hit of buying in hardback, all the rest are paper backs. I pull down a book and open it and can feel the calcified glue along it’s spine cracking. It hasn’t been opened in a long time. The book is that old, but as long as I hold it tenderly, it can be put back, albeit slightly the worse for wear. The kids of course sacked my library years ago. Alexandria fell. The only limitation I ever put on them was read and enjoy – but never lend out one of my books out. I’d lost too many good books over the years via someone else’s altruistic impulse with my damn books.

There are other things about books. A certain tactileness when you run a forefinger over a page, a smell when you bury your nose in them, but above all remembering where you acquired them and who was that person you were at that time.

The best thing thing about a favourite book is that it’s a constant in an increasing sea of uncertainty. Such things are a rarity these days.


Related articles by Pointman:

Make no mistake, words are ammo.

They’re just words.

Words, ideas, primary sources, history and a bit thrown in about writers.

About writing.

Click for a list of other articles.

13 Responses to “The immutability of books.”
  1. Ciaran Brady says:

    Great article – and one that nicely captures my love of books as well. I won’t lie, I have since moved to kindles I think because I’ve been through three house moves and I like having such choice at my finger tips… but the fragility of the tech and the absence of both the feel and smell is something I miss whenever I read. All the most profound and moving books that I’ve read over the years, I still have in book form.


  2. The Man at the Back says:

    Quite a coincidence that you should reference Abraham Lincoln in the context of trying to re-write history. He is of course the target of the left in the USA in recent years.

    Just like the 1930’s temperatures in Iceland (as warm as recent times) have been adjusted to fit; it’s inconvenient that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and the southern Dems were the slave owners. So there has been a move to re-write history. Academia has found evidence they say that Lincoln was not bothered about the slaves at all – emancipation just fell out along the way. See fixed it for you they say.

    At one point though AOC appeared not to have got the memo – she was praising Lincoln. It was almost like she didn’t know he was a Republican!? Surely not? He had to be a Dem didn’t he?

    Even our own Lucy Worsley was enlisted to push the new narrative in her TV series about historical myths.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Graeme No.3 says:

    Re Iceland: my favourite comment on temperature adjustments was from an icelandic Meteorologist who said “he hoped NASA wouldn’t make 1904 any colder otherwise his 4 grandparents would freeze to death before they could meet.”

    And on favourite envy the (well off) Englishman who so filled his house with books that it was unliveable.
    Solution buy a new house.
    When that was full of books, buy another house.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Margaret Smith says:

    Books have been central to me since I started to read (or learn to) at the age of four. My house is overflowing with books and I have no Kindle or similar. I find bookshelves in other people’s homes an irresistible draw. I, too, used libraries while still at school because buying books was not possible.

    Some authors are not available now, but like Dennis Wheatley, were absolute favourites of mine. My evolving interests can be traced in books – westerns (I loved horses), thrillers, then World War II, wild flowers esp. alpines, music and great composers, astronomy, geology and Earth history and, for the last 25 years, climate – many of these things are continuously current. I cannot imagine a world without books!

    Now, I also read blogs such as this one. There are simply not enough hours in the day or days in a lifetime.

    Thank you for such excellent essays.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. monica says:

    What was the book that made young Pointy sad?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Russ Wood says:

    As the proud owner of just about every book that Terry Pratchett wrote, with most of the earlier paperbacks signed, I think that I can say that a lot of my and my wife’s philosophy of life has been shaped by Sir Terry. OK – both my wife and I are readers – and keepers. We have most of the Pratchetts, Dick Francis, Peter Hamilton, Nevil Shute, Ellis Peters – lots of other oeuvres (no – not eggs). So, you could call us bibliophiles, you know, the kind of people who STILL regret the burning of the Alexandria Library!


  7. Power Grab says:

    I’m glad to know you’re a book aficionado, too. I wish I had a “library” in my home. My books are all over my place, just wherever I can find room for them.

    I especially like the feature that you mentioned–that books you own can’t be surreptitiously revised, even though web sites certainly can. George Orwell’s “1984” made a big impression on me. When the World Wide Web became so big so fast, I saw it as just one step towards the word Orwell wrote about.

    Heck, I even bought an entire World Book Encyclopedia (from the mid-1960’s, the kind I used while growing up) from a library book sale for $5. I think that was in about 2010.

    I was particularly interested in showing my offspring that the dumbed-down Food Pyramid was not the be-all and end-all of nutritional wisdom. Back when I was growing up, I distinctly remember being taught about 7 food groups. You were expected to consume foods from each of the 7 groups every day.

    I still buy printed books even though I have both a Kindle and a Nook. There are times I buy a book as both a hard copy book and an e-book.

    I find that I remember better the things I read if I read them from something printed on paper. It’s as if, when some factoid doesn’t have a “place in space” (i.e. on some page somewhere), it can’t find a home in my memory that is quick to access.

    Writings that scroll off the screen always feel temporary. I know that the device can fail (or become obsolete), the document can be removed from my access, the document can be changed without notice, or it can become inaccessible because the power went out and has been out long enough that my battery-driven devices can no longer be recharged and, therefore, no longer work, or TPTB don’t to care to know who is accessing them any more, and/or they don’t want anyone to be able to access them at all, etc.

    Actually, reading a printed book or document seems somewhat subversive nowadays. I know we’re being groomed to live our lives online, so we can be surveilled and TPTB can accumulate ever more data about us. I especially don’t care to stream my music. Mainly because the music that is offered online is not what I prefer to listen to, even if I could understand the words. I have LPs, cassettes, and even CDs that are not available online. I have very many VHS tapes and DVDs, primarily because I don’t care to pay again and again for something I want to watch again and again. Also, TPTB (whoever they might be) have been known to revise commercial movies to match their preferred political leanings. I remember learning during the last Christmas season that one of the “Home Alone” movies had been edited to remove Donald Trump from a scene in one of his buildings.

    I believe that if we don’t use our memory, it can fail us just when need it most. “Use it or lose it,” that’s what I always say.

    Well, this has turned into quite the ramble!

    Before I sign off, I want to recommend a book entitled “The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life” by Arthur Firstenberg. It was published last month (March 2020). The bibliography and index are about 200 pages of the 564 page volume. It is very timely and provides valuable perspective and insight into the current disruption in the world.


    • Graeme No.3 says:

      Me too. I bought the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology when (most of it, I got 25 out of 27 volumes) was thrown out by the Public Library. Not exactly popular reading, nor with any resale value.
      It helps that I graduated in chemistry and spent nearly 40 years using it in Industry.

      @Russ Wood: Have you run across Ruth Dudley Edwards? Detective books that are NEVER reviewed in the literary columns. Very funny but (as you might have gathered) not P.C.


      • Power Grab says:

        @ Graeme:

        Kudos! You got a better bargain than I did! Free definitely beats 5 smackeroos!! 😉


  8. Margaret Smith says:

    Monica asked: What was the book that made young Pointy sad?

    For me it was Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

    I cannot recommend it more highly! It is hard going at first with its lack of paragraphs but stick with it as it is almost unbelievably evocative of a certain period in Scotland and gradually you understand the meaning of the title. I found myself in tears at one point I had become so involved with the people in the story. It has stayed with me to this day.
    If you haven’t read it it is well worth your time to do so..


  9. richard clenney says:

    Wikipedia: This is the modern day “Finagles Factor” I learned about in Trig class. It means
    what you think it should. ( finagles factor is a variable constant exponent, that you attach to your
    answer that translates it to the correct answer) Take what you read in Wikipedia: with a large
    bit of salt! Loved the article.


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