Robert B. Simpson: It's in the book

December 14, 2013 

A gathering wave of adoration for all things digital seems ready to swamp older means of storing and displaying information. Schools and libraries, the very names of which bring books to mind, are rushing frantically away from books and into the world of electronic readers.

I'm not opposed to e-readers. I have a Kindle and have found it useful. I spend hours reading from a computer screen. I love gadgets and would happily use any number of the latest variations of readers if I had them.

But there's something about a book. A professor of mine once said he thought a certain amount of educational value could be derived just from handling good books. I'll go him one further. I think there's value in handling books of all kinds, from serious tomes to pulp fiction and trashy romances. Reading does something for you. Something good. As does the feel and smell and heft of a book, printed on paper. You get more from them than just the printed words on the pages.

When I was a youngster, my older brother and I, resting after the noon meal before farm work started again, would lie across the bed we shared and read books from the county bookmobile.

I remember a couple that were from a series of young boys' detective stories, the Jerry Todd books. They were suspenseful, unrealistic, and mildly humorous, and we loved them. I never saw or heard of any of those books again, and I'd assumed they must have had a brief appearance and then disappeared. But last month I discovered a batch of them, plus several of a separate series, on eBay. With some care and a little luck, I won the bidding and acquired, in decent condition,11 Jerry Todd books and seven Poppy Ott books (same author, similar character). Written in the 1920s and 1930s, displaying the style and the social attitudes of their time, they could by no means be considered good literature. But I am delighted to own them.

For the price of a decent dinner, plus shipping, I bought back some of my best childhood memories. And while I don't expect to stretch across a bed and enjoy the suspense and humor I once enjoyed, I've been enriched by the books in ways my Kindle can't approach.

It's rewarding to handle these books, with their sturdy cloth covers that have survived for up to 88 years, and consider the young hands that have held them, the young eyes that have devoured them, and the dreams and pleasure they created.

The thick pulp pages, edges feathered from use, have never been destroyed because the book "crashed." Sometimes unexpected treasures are found hiding between the pages, like an envelope addressed to an extinct Chicago location, ages before zip codes. Or the neatly handwritten receipt showing one book had been purchased, used, from Kennebec Bookshelf in Skowhegan, Maine for $2.63, including tax.

Flyleaf inscriptions are revealing. I wonder what became of Gladys, whose mother gave her one of these boys' books, in a violation of gender boundaries unusual for the time, for Christmas in 1925. Aunt Addie gave Allen a copy of "Jerry Todd and the Waltzing Hen" for Christmas in 1929.

Given Allen's probable age, he likely had little awareness yet that the stock market had just crashed and the country was falling over a cliff into the Great Depression. I hope he enjoyed the book unshadowed by such knowledge and, worse, that a world war a decade hence would find him at the right age to offer his life for his country.

There are other inscriptions in other volumes of my little collection. When I see them, I am comforted by the thought that, no matter what trials these young readers lived through, then or later, for some period of time they found pleasure reading the book I hold in my hand all these years later.

Yes, digital print is the wave of the future, and I don't find that all bad. But until e-readers come with fly leaves and softened, oft-read pages, my preference is an old-fashioned book.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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