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.
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.
Don’t sound the trumpets yet about the disappearance of print newspapers, because as they say, their demise has been highly exaggerated. Lately, and admittedly to my great surprise, I have noticed more and more people reading newspapers out in the open than usual. Not sure what’s going on, but whether this is nostalgia or rejection of the latest technology fads, the truth is that the few remaining diehard paper readers out there have become a lot more noticeable than the iPad reading crowd. After all, you don’t have to charge a newspaper at any time during the day, and you can buy years of newspapers before you break even with the cost of an iPad. Whatever the reason, it does look like newspapers (and the trash they generate) will be around for a while. How long will that be is anyone’s guess, but time does not appear to be on their side.