Kashmeri: Replacing The Book

May 5, 2014

I know it’s been said by many that printed books are heading for extinction, that digital-editions fulfill all the function that their printed cousins do, but a recent experience leads me to conclude otherwise.

My wife and I were visiting my brother and his family at their B&B in Canada, when I found myself wide awake one morning at an unusually early hour and decided to make myself a cup of tea and find something to read.

I was shuffling through a stack of books my brother keeps in their B&B's common room when I came across a slim volume titled "Citizen Tom Paine" by Howard Fast. It immediately caught my attention because I'd wanted for a long time to find out what Paine's fame was all about – and the book was an abridged edition so it was even more appealing because it could be read before the rest of the family got up.

The book looked as if it had been around for a while. The cover was worn and the pages had the color and musty smell of books from a distant time.

And as I flipped open the front cover my attention was riveted by something inscribed in ink: my mother's name, and the date and place where she had read this very book - 1940, Bombay. In my hand was a book that my mother had read in Bombay, India, two years before I was born!

This introduction to Tom Paine’s thinking made the same indelible impression on me that it must have made on my mother, and on generations of readers. But that wasn't all the book had in store for me.

The author described how “Common Sense” spread like wildfire in the then-independent British colonies. One particular passage observes that: "They were a strange people in Vermont... a silent people too, and a cold people who covered their bridges and never spent a penny until after they had earned it. The saying went that Maine men were hard, but Vermont men harder, Maine men mean, but Vermont men meaner... they liked to know that two and two made four and had little patience for ideals... but when Paine explained it would be good business sense to break from the Empire,” Fast writes, “they read on.”

And so did I.

But then I stopped reading and - lost in thought - asked myself whether in her wildest dreams my mother could ever have imagined that her soon-to-be-born son would one day live in Vermont, among those so-called silent people who covered their bridges... and I shook my head in wonder.

Had I found a solitary iPad that morning, instead of the very book my mother had read all those years ago, the experience would have been very different indeed - and far less satisfying. So... as much as I love my iPad, I can’t see it ever completely replacing the book.