In the past nine years that I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve ridden the subway hundreds of times. I used to look up from my seat, even as a little girl, and notice how many people were reading books. This was something I paid attention to since it always comforted me to know that there were other people immersed in different literary worlds. My favourite moments were when I recognized certain titles and could immediately situate myself in that world and feel a connection with that strange reader.
My relationship with reading has been the greatest love affair of my life. Every page contains an embrace, a distinct memory. Some people like to keep their books pristine, but I’ve always been a fan of scribbled notes in the margins, dog-eared pages, smudged ink, and gentle stains of chocolate pudding or tomato sauce — signs of love, and of how I once couldn’t leave its side. For me, a new book is a new experience, once that should be felt with all the senses: from new book smell to old book smell, sturdy frame to cracked spine, pristine print to fraying cover. I find pieces of myself hidden on this journey, captured in between the words like fabric snagged on tree branches.
Today, on the subway, I looked up and around my car to find that I was the only person who was reading a book — a real, live, print book. I’ve seen the closure of so many bookstores in Toronto over the past decade and with each one, I felt as though a tiny part of me died too. In Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart describes a futuristic world in which books are discarded and spurned. He says: “They haven’t been banned. Oh no, they’ve just been abandoned. The 20th-century nightmare scenario where books were burned has been replaced by the 21st-century scenario, where nobody really cares enough to burn them.” This notion has terrified me since I read it, but it was only recently that I’m realizing how it’s already on its way to becoming a reality.
What will we lose if books become entirely electronic? I think we would lose knowing a unique relationship with an object that holds a life of its own. Reading will just become a processing of information, as opposed to an all-consuming experience. I will always cherish the feeling of a solid book in my hands, getting to know it with every turning page, and falling in love, “slowly, then all at once.” I know I’m no longer in the majority for valuing that experience, but I want to hope, for my children’s sake, that they will have that chance to fall in love too.