Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Books: Sacred Objects or Mere Packaging for Art

Is a book an inherently sacred object or is it simply a practical delivery mechanism for the art contained within its pages? This question always leads to strong debate among readers.

Kathryn Hughes, in a somewhat dated entry over at the Guardian's book blog, expresses the position of the book worshippers:
While I have no problems getting rid of clothes, food or even TVs, the moment I no longer need a book I find it excruciating to part with it. … The reason for this self-defeating attitude is, I think, something to do with being brought up to believe that books were almost sacred objects. … So to me, books - even bad ones - still equal freedom, knowledge and beauty. And to throw even one of them away seems to me like a crime against humanity.
I belong to the other camp: those who believe the essence of a book is found in its text rather than its physicality. As long as a copy exists in the world, the art of that book exists. Each particular copy is nothing more than a practical way to disseminate the art to the masses, analogous to a postcard reproduction of a painting. With the exception of a few collectable books (autographed first editions or otherwise special editions), when I'm finished with a book, I have no qualms about giving it away, donating it to charity, or even (gasp!) throwing it away if it's not worth passing on.

Is there a right or proper answer to this question? In my view, there are no moral implications here, despite what my books-as-sacred-objects friends believe. Rather, it's nothing more than personal preference.


Lisa said...

Interesting post. I hear a lot of the "books are sacred" arguments when people start talking about eBooks and audiobooks. I agree that there is something marvelous about a book, but maybe if they saw it as less of a sacred object, they would be more open to new technologies.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post!

The only books I've gone out of my way to collect or keep for sentimental reasons are children's books. Most other books in my library are kept for what I can only call literary research. For example, while reading War and Peace, I was reminded of the Burning of Atlanta scene from Gone With the Wind. I loved the convenience of being able to put both books next to each other and read, read, read. Also, when I review books, I like to go back and re-read the author's previous works to see where the latest work fits in to their entire body of work. Unless Kindle has multitple windows, I don't think that it's going to be replacing my hard copies anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

I won't part with books, but that's because I expect to want to read them again at some point. But what I *would* have trouble with is simply throwing a book away, unless it's too tatty to be of interest to anyone. I'd rather pass it on to someone else.

caite said...

gosh, i just can't agree with the 'mere packaging' idea. ok, I have no logical arguments and I certainly don't hold with the idea of books themselves being in any way sacred but...
to just throw a book out...like in the trash...no. give it a new home..fine.

I understand the logical argument about it just being a physical container for the 'art'. but they can be beautiful containers and art in themselves. even when they are not, many of us still have an emotional connection with that external form. and while new technologies have many pluses, they will never replace that.

well, I hope not anyhoo.

Carolyn said...

I love to be surrounded by books and I am a great "re-reader" so I generally keep my books unless I disliked them. Then I give them away or donate them to a book sale we do annually at my church.

I used to give books I liked away if I thought I'd never read them again, but I found myself years later buying a book I used to own because I wanted to read it again. Yes, I know about libraries--and I use them frequently--but sometimes I don't want to deal with a "dead-line."

I am notorious for lending books and never getting them back because I forget about it until I want it and then can't remember who has it. LibraryThing.com has solved that problem for me--now I enter as a tag who I lent it to and can find it when I want it--assuming of course, they haven't lost it! I live with these losses because i love to share my books with others--so they aren't sacred objects for me, just precious in my sight!

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those that swings one way and then the other. I did have a phase swapping books on the UK site Readitswapit and parted with some books I'd had for many years but just knew I'd never read again. Swapping them for some newer books has left me with rather a large TBR pile again that at the moment I don't tend to see me swapping on as I've become attached again. Give me a while and it may change again. I just love books and sometimes they can be close to sacred.

Katherine said...

I'm with Kathryn Hughes. I recently went thorugh an apartment move, and in preparation, I got rid of nearly half my clothes. But with books, I simply couldn't part with any, even though that meant carrying them up and down flights of stairs in boxes. I just love looking at my bookcases, and seeing those books there. It's hard to decribe the feeling, exactly.