On tactility of books

11 May 2021
11 May 2021

This is an excerpt from today’s issue of my weekly newsletter.

New York is a place that seems to demand that I justify why I’m living here. It’s expensive. It’s noisy. What am I getting in exchange? So I’ve been trying to go out more and see what’s in the neighborhood recently.

Last week, I made a couple of visits to Strand Bookstore, a large and apparently quite historic bookstore downtown. I went a couple of times, once just to browse and once to pick up a couple of books including The Idea Factory, which I’m about to start.

Browsing books at a bookstore has a certain unique tactility to it. You don’t just look at covers and read the sleeves; you grab one from the shelf and feel it in your hand, too. You open it up, flip through the pages, and feel the weight on your fingers.

An underground shelf of books at Strand Bookstore

When you hold a book and feel it in your hand, you can really tell the difference between different types of paper and bindings. Some open up easily like a notebook while other books seem stiff and unmoving, clamped shut until you pry it open. Some books have pages that slide over each other perfectly smoothly, while others feel like rubbing pieces of wood against each other.

Sometimes, how the book feels can tell you something about its contents. Imagery-heavy books will tend to have more expensive, thicker, glossy paper stock, for example. Occasionally, I come across a coffee table book with fabric or embossed covers, which implies whoever made that choice really wanted the book to be held and felt.

I felt all of this in my hands as I picked books off of shelves. And I thought about how, when I browse writing online, I completely miss out on this tactility of words. All webpages, no matter how heavy or serious or cheaply made, feel the same. They all scroll smoothly and feel weightless. Clicking on one link feels just as empty as another. I found myself wishing for a world where I could browse blogs and articles online the way I browse books at the store – feeling the weight of the words on my hands as I read them off the page.

X was here

Something else I noticed at Strand was the abundance of scribbles on the walls covering the used books section of the store. It’s a common sight in old bookstores, and I always enjoy trying to decipher how they got there, and when.

Scribbles on the wall at Strand Bookstore, with phrases like “J Dawg” and “Alexey was here”

In this instance though, the scribbles raised a question for me. The bookstore had been around for almost a century, but the oldest dated scribble I could find was from the late 2010’s. The wall had probably been painted over recently. In a few years, it’ll probably be painted over again, and the marks left on the wall by the authors of these current scribbles will disappear behind another layer of white.

And after that, nobody will see or remember that “X was here” or that “A loves E”. But I don’t think that makes the scribbles meaningless. I think the meaning is mostly in the having written more than the having been noticed. Sometimes it matters more that you left a mark than that someone else read it.

Everything I make and put online – writing, websites, open source projects – these are my versions of “X was here.” It’s a way of leaving a mark in time that I was here. I don’t particularly mind whether people like it or not, though it’s always a pleasant surprise when something catches on. I mostly care that I keep sending out ripples into time that can spread beyond the little space I take up. In due time, all the traces will be covered up and forgotten beyond being noticed. But I think that’s ok. To me, having made matters more than being noticed. And so I’ll keep making.

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