You Can Touch But Don’t Feel

A Truth of Our Digital Age

[A chilling comment found scribbled in the margin of a book… a feeling, when reading it, you’ll never experience with an eBook.] “My name is—smudged and could not read—from Vilna. The Nazis are coming to my town. I have studied up to this spot. If this book survives me, please start learning from here in my memory.” [The quote is from the article linked to below. I hope you read the article. It was moving and made me reflect on my own love of books.]

You Can Touch But You Don't Feel by Dennis LoweryScreens have no memories. We can touch them, the devices that many (perhaps most) of us do much of our reading on today, but they feel cold. They’re impersonal. There is no tactile sense of the work and of the heart that went into the crafting of the story you’re reading.

And good stories have their own heartbeat. For many readers—if the story resonated with them and touched them deeply—when they pick up the book to re-read, even years later, they feel it stir something within them. It’s the book’s soul responding to theirs. Its heft, as fingertips graze the texture of the paper and the edges of pages as they’re turned, gives a sense of singularity. You are holding one book, not a device packed with other books and countless distractions. It has one function and sole reason for being. That’s something you only sense with a real book. Especially old ones—stories that have endured—and those that in some cases have escaped being permanently lost or cast off that end in the hands of a new reader who discovers and enjoys them for the first time.

I have many books. My wife—half-jokingly half-wanting me to get rid of some of them—comments on how many I have. My office is sacrosanct, so her head shaking has no import there… but the bookshelves in our bedroom and the boxes of them stored in our attic. Well, I can understand her viewpoint. The books (classics and entertaining stories), dozens of them I’ve had for decades (some since early childhood), I’ve loved through the years, are those I can’t part with. Others, those that are the focal point of my wife’s head shaking, linger. They were good reads that haven’t quite made the cut, but I’m not ready to get rid of them. Most will go during one of my periodic purges. Yet each year I add new, cherished, stories that I’ll keep. So, it grows.

Going back over the past 52 years (as of this writing) to when I read my first book, Reynard the Fox at 5 years oldI can recall certain instances and events to associate with a book or books I was reading at the time. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, reading it late into the night and early morning when I was 15 and couldn’t sleep while my broken right shoulder, held in place by a harness, painfully healed. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and helping a high school friend learn the story. The Far Pavilions while serving in the US Navy and TAD briefly with a USAF AWACS unit based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for flights over Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq early in the Iraq—Iran war. In the air, with the region beneath us, and later at sea in the Indian Ocean, I’d see the sweep of a radar or navigation chart that showed me where M. M. Kaye’s epic novel, a 1000 page masterpiece of storytelling set in India and Afghanistan, unfolded. Reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the 12th time and rocking my first daughter to sleep trying not to wake her as I turned pages. Reading books I bought at school book fairs: The Phantom TollboothProfessor Diggins’ Dragons (both classics)The Mystery of the Indian Hideout and The Mystery of the Green Ghost (these two, not so classic but I enjoyed them as a child) to my four daughters, at approximately the same age I was when I bought them. Their brittle pages and covers starting to crumble in my hands but full of memories that didn’t fray or come apart.

I could keep going and almost fully reveal my life story as I told you of what I was reading… the when and where. Books read during happy times. Sad times. Life’s and deaths. Books I’ve scribbled in… underlined and commented on in the margins. Nothing dramatic as the opening quote I used above, from the Time article The Soul of a Book, though. That was chilling, and it was such an interesting article about the importance of books in the author’s, and his father’s, life that it made me reflect on their significance in mine.

When I’ve passed on, my daughters will likely keep some of the books I’ve collected and hopefully a copy of all I’ve written and come to write. They’ll have their own memories attached to my reading of other author’s stories and the writing of my own, and maybe that will add to their memory of me. But most of the books I’ve collected over the decades will likely be disposed of when I die. A sad truth. Another truth—a good and happy one—is that books do have a soul and they certainly have served a purpose in my life to enrich my own. I know when we’re both gone, parts of us—the books and me—that have touched others still living will continue to tell our stories.