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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

An Ode to Book Spines

Why book spines are irreplaceable, a lighthearted blog.

I have mentioned in previous but recent blogs that transporting a huge number of physical books from one house to the next is a serious chore, the turmoil of which is compounded when moves can easily arrive on me unexpectedly. Compacted paper is not light, and books can eat up even a lot of space quickly. (Space not being super abundant in London.) Packing book after book after book and feeling no progress has been made is demoralizing when demoralization is already an issue. Therefore, I have renewed my overall appreciation and fondness for ebooks and my (now fourth) ebook reader.

I have used ebooks for a long time, selectively. As a teenager, on each occasion I went on holiday, I would carry some three to five books in each side of my giant great coat pockets, plus extra ones in bags. Ebooks proved a far more adaptable strategy. One small device fitted into far more fashionable, lighter pockets. I have always liked that ebooks make recording down quotes, finding particular points of a work, etc. far easier. The technology also makes getting huge numbers of out of copyright material incredibly simple, and nearly free. There are many clear advantages.

But on the moving front, I have found an even more serious reason to turn to the ebook. I have committed to purchasing as many electronic titles as possible, especially when a book has no sentimental value, is not better consumed in a more material format (as with art and poetry books) and is not inherently a beautiful object (as with Folio Society or certain experimental volumes). In particular, I aim to make sure that the majority of nonfiction titles, left theory, psychology, history, etc. are stored on a virtual rather than an actual bookshelf.

There are many reasons people claim not to like e-readers, all legitimate depending on a reader’s own preferences. The smell, tactile sensation and weight of books are often appreciated as part of the reading experience itself. (I would certainly claim all are of value to me.) But foremost for me, the greatest loss when it comes to average paperbacks, and especially to those above-mentioned nonfiction titles, is spines.

Book spines are underappreciated. These slices of information do not arrest us like the covers themselves, but they have tremendous value. To some extent that value is aesthetic; book spines are how books predominantly appear in a room, and the magnificent colours and images that appear often on Folio Society spines, as an example, can create a wonderful impression. But for me that is not where their real, paramount value lies.

My love of book spines goes back to realising in my late adolescence that being surrounded by books I had read, particularly books that packed a lot of condensed information, was an irreplaceable memory aid. I can scan the spines of a shelf that includes works that informed my philosophical formation (such as Raymond Tallis’s The Hand Trilogy) and recall a host of different connections and tangents that I still associate with the reading experience. These associations can help when I get stuck on a subject, or find myself searching for one.

Economizing books is a necessity, in part because I do not wish to ever stop buying those truly astonishingly captivating pieces that I most treasure in my collection (a new Folio edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy being the most recent edition to books of that ilk). But for every book that goes straight to that purely digital library I can more easily transport, more easily quote from, more easily manage, I will nonetheless miss the fantastic memory aid that is the book spine, that catalogue of previous reading in which I can situate myself so comfortably and happily.


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