Books: the physical object

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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The other day when I was waiting at the hospital I saw a middle-aged couple. They must have been in their late 50s. The lady was carrying a paper bag – her husband was apparently the patient. At a certain point, I noticed that the paper bag was dripping. I let her know. She started removing the objects one by one, mundane objects accompanying patients in the long waiting hours before or while treatment. Among those, there was an old and battered copy of a book by Eça de Queirós. I couldn’t catch the title, but Pedro who had noticed on his own the book resting on the man’s arm a little earlier, let me know that it was an old edition, by Livro do Brazil, one of those that you needed to cut open the pages with a paper knife when you first bought it. I was very moved by the aspect of the book. This was not a book to simply pass your time by. This was a book that someone had read, and re-read, perhaps a favorite novel, that was now called upon as a source of comfort and consolation, against the dreaded disease.

It started me thinking about books as physical objects and my own relationship with them. I have been a defender of electronic books from the very start, mostly because I hate carrying weight. The moments that I associate with reading, however, and my own memories of it are all attached to a specific book, that had a determinate aspect, look, feel, weight; that was read (or bought) in a specific place; or that was given to me as a present by a beloved friend or lover. I can only recall one exception, of a book recently read on an iPad, Jean Rhys’s masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea. I was in a caffe just off Notre Dame, and I doubt I’ll ever forget the brilliant telling of the story of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the guilty secret that haunts the love of Rochester and Jane Eyre (one of my least favorite Brontë novels). The descriptions of colonial landscape can only be compared to the feeling of the jungle in what is probably my favorite novel of all times, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

But Heart of Darkness is precisely one of those novels that I strongly associate with a time and place: Paris again (strangely, it seems I have read most of Conrad’s novels in Paris: Chance, Victory), and the metro. At least, I started reading it in the metro – but it soon proved impossible. The volume was slender enough to be carried around without aggravating my back, but the richness of Conrad’s prose and my desire to roll around the words in my mouth (like candy), to pronounce them loudly and slowly, and come back to each individual sentence, made it impossible. I read the rest in the seclusion of my student room.

I am now again reading Conrad (The Secret Agent), and the uproarious, utterly unique and ultra-modern 1749 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, which is too heavy to carry around. These made me think about other encounters with books: my friend Vassilis offering me what is possibly the best translation of a book in another language that I have encountered so far, Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, translated by Anna Sikelianou in Greek; my first boyfriend, also named Vassilis, offering me Karagatsis’s The Great Chimera, dedicated to my wandering spirit; the poetry book by Álvaro de Campos offered to me by Pedro, my future husband (his own, old copy), as well as the slim bilingual edition of W. H. Auden’s poems I bought from the Feira do Livro in our first outing together; the kitsch-y editions of The Collector’s Library (my Secret Agent is from the same publisher), with the shiny, fake golden leaves, and hard covers, like War and Peace that Noti gave me as a present – I could not get through the novel, as I kept losing track of the names of the characters, could not be bothered with any of them, and was unexpectedly put off by Tolstoy’s subtle but unmistakable misogynism.

And many others: the original white-cover-with-red-title edition of Stratis Tsirkas’s Drifting Cities trilogy (I can hardly think of re-reading it now, that the edition has changed); the tiny volume, from a never before heard small editing press (bibliothèque allia), of Casanova’s Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise, which would become my second favorite novel after Conrad and always sits atop my nightstand; Camus’s Caligula that I was reading in parallel with Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (giving rise to a funny misunderstanding when, upon my friend Elik asking how ‘it’ ends, I replied “well, they kill him, of course”, which led to a grave surprise since his childhood memories of Ivanhoe were much happier); the used copy of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which awaited some twenty years till I picked it up again: apparently, the English was quite challenging when I first started it, and the book still carried tiny letters of vocabulary explanations on top of the words in the first pages; Ethan Frome, whose emotional impact was proportionally inverse to its size; the Age of Innocence which I had to buy twice, because the Wordsworth Classics edition had a serious printing error (jumping from Chapter 6 to 15), but that I still kept because it had John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew on the cover.

These are also the books I would probably take with me, if I needed to, well, take books anywhere with me. These, and perhaps the cheap paperback edition of Wuthering Heights, with the tiny, tiresome letters – and Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone (how could anyone prefer Dickens?). Perhaps I would still take the portable reading devices, and the cables needed for periodically charging them. Would I remember though where I read what? Or where (and how) it was that I first encountered a book?

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* Originally written in August 2015, finished today. Then and now, in treatment.

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