A love letter to books

<p>This year will see much talk about handheld e-book readers. A US church is even about to pilot the e-hymnal (&quot;Dearly Beloved, press F7 for Lift Up Your Hearts&quot;). The e-reader will ultimately be good for bookshops, providing a channel for all those low-margin reference texts, siphoning off some of our overpublishing glut in an eco-friendly way, and generally promoting reading.</p>
<p>Some say that the printed book will die out. But books are an all-round psycho-sensory experience. Every reader has a few books which they love because they represent a transformation time in their lives.</p>
<p>Electronic access to, say, <i>Brideshead Revisited</i> cannot replace a well-thumbed copy. Books improve with use and age. Books can be given, in the primeval gifting style which has such tribal resonance. To give a book is to say: &quot;go to bed with my unconscious&quot;.</p>
<p>A book cover seen in public says more about the owner than clothes or labels ever can. They can enjoyably be left on trains: I do this and dawdle on the platform, voyeuristically watching the picker-up of my tome. After one heavy reading session I left a random pile of books and two guards took them, exclaiming: &quot;Look at this, it's f*****g Borders!&quot; There is a thriving internet movement of folk who leave books around, then email each other. We are still territorial animals, and books mark out our imagination zones. Whether it's the bedside table, the library or the bookshop, the sheer three-dimensional bulk of books needs housing and that housing is sensuous.</p>
<p>Anthony Powell was right: books do furnish a room. Book-shelved rooms usually smell good, and they have a special acoustic. The worst part of any relationship break-up is that hollow sound in the book-stripped room. A past wife of mine threw my books out of an upstairs window, a cathartic psychodrama which would have been much abbreviated with an e-reader.</p>
<p>Printed books are palimpsests of our lives. They bear our imprint: we press in them the mountain-holiday flower, we spill wine, bath water, suntan lotion and even tears on them. As babies, we chew them; as adults, we curl up with them. We crack their spines for pleasure: they are unbreakable. Tibetans wind them, mummy-style, in cloth (the unwrapping itself is a prefatory meditation). Conversely, the great travel writer Wilfred Thesiger hated book jackets and had a post-purchase ritual of removing the garish cover to expose the tactile buckram. Others cannot resist writing in books, and there are now several works on &quot;marginalia&quot; through the ages. To a historian or anthropologist, the book, at 500 years old, is a new-born baby. It has a long life ahead of it.</p>