Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
Something feels a bit different when you step into a library these days. The first thing you notice is that these great places of wisdom have ceased to be the meeting places of yesteryears. These days the level of activity within these ancient temples can be best described as a trickle. Long gone are the days when the library was central to our thirst for knowledge, or to our social lives. The Internet and the digital revolution rendered them pretty much irrelevant for most people, and it all happened seemingly at the speed of light. The digitization of knowledge meant that we no longer had to physically travel to find it. Rather, knowledge would now come to us through a few, simple strokes on a keyboard. Ditto for our social interaction. Handshakes? That’s so yesterday. Today we just click on a “like” and be done with it. Catching a potential partner’s eye across the library table? You kidding? Just make sure your online dating profile is up to snuff and that your photoshopped photo looks great on the dating site. Click. Send. Done.
But no matter how much some of us appear to be grieving for the passing of the old-fashioned library, I still think that its total demise remains a thing of the future. Sure, the books in those buildings appear to be more decoration than references (when I visited not one person had a book in front of them, but everyone was at a computer terminal or sitting with a laptop), but some of the traditional attributes of libraries remain as needed today as they were decades ago when we all used to hang out around such places. Quiet. Silence. Solitude. A sense of space. A time for introspection and learning ( and yes, on account of propriety I’m leaving out some of the shenanigans that made libraries famous for different reasons way back then). Today, there are simply not too many places available in cities and communities for people to enjoy those somewhat passive pursuits. Noise pollution and endless visual demands have taken a serious toll on all of us. But in a library, the moment people set foot in them, silence and quiet take over just like magic, and a sense of “do-not-disturb” immediately becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Social detox at its best. Bastions of peace and quiet in a world bent on denying us those simple pleasures. And while such musings could easily be interpreted as excessive nostalgia or some equally forlorn feeling, I can only hope that such places never cease to exist, even if the betting is heavily stacked against them.
It is a rare moment when the largest library institution in the world, the Library of Congress, opens the doors to its Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building to the general public. In fact, it only happens a couple of times a year, but most people (including myself) generally miss it because the news surrounding these rare events tends to be about as low-keyed as you can get. After all, these library folks are not the kind of folks you will generally encounter down in Rio de Janeiro letting loose during Mardi Gras. So when I received an early-morning text from a great photographer friend yesterday asking if I was interested in heading up to Capitol Hill with our cameras, the offer was impossible to resist. Low light, no tripods allowed, and surely lots of folks ready to photo-bomb your shots. No problem, and away we went.
To say that the the Main Reading Room is an impressive place would be a gross understatement. Entering this imposing Beaux Arts room with its incredibly ornamented dome rising about 160 feet from the ground is quite an event in-an-of-itself. It is reminiscent to the experience of entering a Renaissance church in Florence and suddenly been overtaken by a magnificent view you could not have foreseen prior to entering the building. But as beautiful as the scene was, photographing the place was to prove a bit of a challenge. There were people, and photographers of all kinds, all over the place. No one (including yours truly) wanted to miss out on this rare opportunity, and at times it was as if photographers and visitors were engaging in a hastily choreographed, chaotic dance without a dance director. In this environment, timing, patience, and a steady hand to compensate for the lack of a tripod (generally forbidden, but possible to get permission if you plan way ahead and are willing to grow old in the process) were key to getting a decent photograph.
And then there was the low light, which for a Leica rangefinder shooter trying to focus manually in a darkish room does not lead to a match made in heaven. So out came the external Leica EVF adapter, and just like that, I could suddenly focus in the dark. I suddenly felt better about having had to sell an organ to pay for the darn contraption. Now I just have to work on developing the smooth breathing rhythm of a zen monk in deep meditation before I press that shutter release. No doubt this is easier said than done.
I’m always fascinated by bookstores. Never mind that long ago I made the transition to e-readers, though, because no matter this surrender to the modern era, I still can’t resist the lingering nostalgia that comes from having been part of the pre-Internet generation. Not that my memory of simpler times leads to any sale during my visits (carrying a camera all day seems enough for me these days), but rather that in the process of transitioning to the digital age, all sorts of things were admittedly lost in the process. The physical sensation that comes from walking between rows and rows of books, the orderly lack of uniformity and topics on the shelves, and the childish satisfaction that accompanied the process of purchasing a book. All great things, but perhaps more relevant to an era when physical access to a whole slew of bookstores was more the norm rather than an exception. Notwithstanding this reality, bookstores out there are not giving up without a fight and seem to have figured something out by concentrating in neighborhoods that do away with the need for anyone to get into a car to reach them. This is good news. But is this a last stand or the wave of the future? Hard to say. What I know is that bookstores are still out there, and that just in case, we must all enjoy them while we can.
We have to sometimes wonder whether it is best to be noticed when we are out and about, or whether it is better if no one ever pays us any attention. After all, some of us do spend a little bit of time color coordinating, placing the hair just so, and making sure that there is not much out of place before we venture into the open world where self-anointed fashion critics lurk around coffee shops and sidewalk restaurants to mercilessly critique our threads and the way we wear them. OK, I’ll admit that this is a bit overstated, but hey, that’s the way it feels sometimes. Of course, I must admit that I’m using “yours truly” as a point of reference, which is all I’m an authority at, and that most of you out there are quite the head-turners (in a good way, that is). But be that as it may, the point is that while some people do deck-up so that at least someone notices them, other folks couldn’t care less about the unwanted attention. That’s a pity, because being noticed reminds us that we are alive and that we are part of the great human story of our times. So go out, strut your stuff, notice and be noticed. Take it all in, because these will be the memories of your life.
The National Book Festival put together by the great folks from the Smithsonian Institution took over the National Mall this past week. As always, this well-attended festival is kind of a national reminder of the value of books and the great benefits that come from reading. I will admit, though, that in the era of Tweeter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook, book reading as a national activity is not what it used to be. Most of us can be considered “occasional” book readers at best, even when technologies like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made acquiring and reading book about as easy as it can be humanly made.
But having recently returned from Paris, something very interesting caught my attention during this book festival. This was the contrast between the French and the American attitudes to book reading. The French as a whole are considered some of the most prolific book readers in the world, and when I say books, I mean the hardbound, physical, nice-smelling books we grew up with a generation ago in America. Walking the streets of Paris, book readers were everywhere holding books of all sizes while sitting at outdoor cafes or at the local park benches. No doubt their “bookworms” reputation is well deserved. But what I did not see in Paris were electronic book readers. Not one. Nada. Zip. In contrast, if you removed the bare-bones Barnes & Noble tent from the National Book Festival, there wasn’t a physical book pile to be seen anywhere (at least that I could find while walking around). And here is where the contrast with France appeared most evident: in the reality that digital distribution and consumption of books in America is rapidly overtaking the tired, brick-and-mortar sales model that appears to be alive and well in France. Old world vs. new world? Not sure, but while this distinction doesn’t mean that Americans are reading any less lately, it surely seems to point to the fact that most of us are not going to be flipping pages a-la-France these days. For most of us today, a walk to the local bookstore these days involves logging in to a digital book seller online and never hearing the friendly “great book” comment from the bookstore employee. Maybe this sort of human interaction is not needed these days, or maybe online reviews are a good-enough substitute for the old bespectacled clerk. Who knows. All I know is that if they could replicate that great book smell that hits you the first time you open a brand-new book, then that would be something. Ahaaaa! Well, in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.