Why we need physical books

William Giraldi in The New Republic:

ScreenHunter_1171 May. 02 21.47Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to forget. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”

A pleasing vista onto the early twentieth-century life of one English writer, Gissing’s autobiographical novel is also an effusive homage to book love. “There were books of which I had passionate need,” says Ryecroft, “books more necessary to me than bodily nourishment. I could see them, of course, at the British Museum, but that was not at all the same thing as having and holding them”—to have and to hold—“my own property, on my own shelf.” In case you don’t quite take Ryecroft’s point, he later repeats “exultant” when recalling that afternoon of finding the Gibbon—“the exultant happiness.”1 Exultation is, after all, exactly what the bibliophile feels most among his many treasures.

More here.