Today, we read more than we mean to in books. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
What's in a book? This
series has made me read books with new eyes. I've
found they are not what they seem to be. To do this
show I have to live my life in books. They overflow
my room. Great minarets of books rise up from the
floor and the corners of my desk.
Sometimes I skim-read. Sometimes I study. Sometimes
I simply hold a material book up to the light and
learn things it was not meant to tell me.
A while back I found marginal notes in an old math
text. It seems it'd been through the Civil War.
Then I found its owner's biography. A synergy
between the book and its owner was laid bare. He
became a radio program;
but he also became real to me.
The way we make books says a lot about us. Here's a
huge old 19th-century family bible. It's too heavy
to pick up and read. But it has places for photos,
locks of hair, and documents. It's really not a
book at all. It's a piece of furniture.
Look at these old WW-II whodunits. They have the
most acidic paper ever made. Bend a page, and it
breaks like a wafer. These pocket books were meant
to pass from one soldier's fatigues to the next --
then fall apart after the fifth reading.
I'm appalled at how badly we make textbooks these
days. Maybe they're meant to be read only once. I
imagine book makers hate to see books resold.
Better they should fall apart!
Now computers want to change the role of books.
Most library card catalogs are already on
computers. So are the major reference books.
Journals will be next.
Books are another matter. They may show up on
pocket computers someday. But not soon! They're too
efficient. They're compact and portable. Electronic
storage won't catch up with books for a long, long
Meanwhile, I think back to my bookish childhood
home. We had a beautiful cased volume of
Candide. I was dyslexic. I couldn't
read. And Candide was one book my
parents wouldn't read to me. Yet anything so
beautifully made, and so subtly censored, had to
have the power to change me.
Much later, when I learned to read, I found books
did just that. I finally read Candide.
It was far more than the words it contained. It
wrought images of life and death -- of love and
carnality. It did change me.
So that's what books really are. They're agents of
change. Their tactile, corporeal presence lays its
hold on us. They let be us children again -- beings
of infinite potential once more.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds