A Bookish Journal to a Future Reader

Several weeks ago, Greg at The New Dork Review of Books posted about his aversion to e-books (and Greg, if you're reading this, my apologies in advance for summarizing your rationale in less eloquent terms than you did). His reasons, however, were not the standard protestations of needing the physical feel of a book in hand, the smell of the binding, etc, etc (although I think I could safely argue that most bookworms harbor some love for the look and feel and smell of a physical book).

No, instead of the standard reasons, Greg did not want to give up his paper books because of the "book memory phenomenon" associated with them, the recollection of the time and place in which they were read that was associated with their physical presence on their shelves.

I feel the same way about my bookshelves (though I've never articulated it as well), and this is one of the reasons that my living room is not decorated with art, but instead several teetering versions of the infamous Billy Bookcase from IKEA. As I sit in my spectacularly recovered reading chair, I can scan the titles on the shelves, thinking of the last time I read them, or when I purchased them, or who gifted them to me, or kick myself for not reading them yet, whatever the case may be.

But my love of paper books as memory vessels goes even further than that, I think, due in large part to the fact that I write in my books. Yes, that divisive subject again. I'm not going to get into the whys of my writing in books - I've done that already - but suffice it to say that I do. (I also dog-ear the pages, if you're wondering. Top corners and bottom corners.) What I'm left with is a cohesive unit that contains both the content of the book (duh) and my experience with it. I've underlined the passages I like, circled words I didn't understand, written definitions and thoughts in the margins. I've most likely broken the binding (page 141-142 fell out of my copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog this weekend), and there's even a risk of coffee stains on the pages (or tea, as the case may be).

What I love most about this process is not the cathartic nature of underlining or commenting as I read, though I do love that. It is that when I re-read, or turn back to a passage, a page, a sentence, I am recalling the exact experience I had when I last read the book. I am essentially reading a journal of my reading experience, overlayed atop the reading material itself.

Most often, when I re-read a book, or dip back into it for whatever reason, I find that what stands out to me has changed. Perhaps it is because I know the outcome, and therefore events take on a new meaning. Or perhaps it is because it has been several years and my perspective has changed. Or maybe it's as simple as forgetting the definition of a word I used to know (or thought I knew).

My bookcases, then, are physical reminders of a place, a setting, a story, as they are to Greg. But my books are journal entries to a future reader, especially when that future reader is myself. I have an e-reader, and I will read books on it, but the experience of revisiting my book experience will never be the same in e-ink.


  1. That sounds really lovely. I can't help but be a bit jealous. I have memories assocaited with some of my books, but my memory just isn't good enough to have too many memories associated with them to be honest. Some of them i have written in the front cover the year I purcased them and where from, but only if I bought them while I was on holidays.

    I laughed at your stained pages too. My books look a lot like, but more often than not they have vegemite smeared over pages :-)

  2. ps. sorry about the million typos in that comment. I am really tired at the moment :-)

  3. I have an ereader, which is getting rather dusty. I've decided to use it for non-fiction or chance-books I don't want littering up my bookshelves because I'm running out of room.

    I love the sense of book memories. It's why I buy books because they're physically there, not shut away in a library. I've never been able to really forge the same connection with a library book as I have my own book.

    Last month I did fall in love with a book I had from the library and I was sad to take it back. I wish I'd lied and told them I'd lost it or something so I could just pay or buy another to replace it. It's just that I read that book. Those are the pages I loved first. If I were to buy myself a copy, it wouldn't be the one *I* read. It'd be some other book. I've thought about taking it out again from the library, with the impure intention to steal it. However, I've sinced noticed that some other person has taken it out since and for some reason I feel that's tainted the book. Someone else's fingers, someone else's DNA.

    Part of me thinks that should make it more meaningful, that other people are enjoying it as well and that it isn't just sitting alone and read but only once on my shelf. But somehow it doesn't.

    I don't write in my books. Or dog ear them. Horror! That would distract me too much from the reading. I've tried to take notes in my ereader but the whole process of getting to that menu of course is long winded. I've tried (with physical books) to make notes on a pad or on sticky notes but that doesn't work either because I'm rubbish at remembering to take notes, or wanting to stop just to take a note. I think it's a remarkable thing to be able to do.

    I love books for their memories, and I love having books waiting on my shelf to be read because of the possibility that they hold. I don't think ebooks can ever take the place of a real book for a proper reader, someone who loves books not just for the words inside.

  4. Becky - I do the same thing with the front covers, though I don't write where I purchased them, instead writing where I read them (especially when travelling). Usually I write my name and the month & year I'm reading, and if I'm reading it somewhere interesting (like on my honeymoon), I write that too. Book journaling at its finest.

    Fiona - I love that story about the library! I know exactly what you mean. When I re-read, I particularly like to re-read the same copy of the book I read the first time. It's the one with all the experience in it. Great thoughts.


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