What matters, the book or its contents?

800px-Harvard_college_-_annenberg_hallThe vast and labyrinthine libraries of Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, have within their collections at least three books which are bound with human skin.

These types of volumes – though understandably rare today, given that they give right-thinking people the heebie-jeebies, were not unknown up to the 16th century. The practice even had a name – Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the executed convict for example.

It’s the most extreme example I could muster of a point where the physical book itself, rather than its contents, becomes an object of interest. A more savoury example of course would be the historic books held in the treasures of the British Library – the illuminated medieval gospels, the original Beowulf manuscript and the rest. With these items the book itself is as important as the words with in it.

Whether it’s wondering at the wonderful illustrations, marvelling at the historic value of the work or indulging in a ghoulish fascination that the binding was once someone’s skin, we would look on books like these primarily as objects in their own right rather than holders if information.

Personally I’ve always considered that the content of a book is all which really matters to me. I’ve always bought paperbacks rather than hardbacks for example, because I’ve never understood why one would want to pay more to read the same thing.

I would never be the sort of person who would collect first editions or historic books – I’d rather have a nice new one where the print was clear and the pages didn’t smell musty. And, though I keep the books I’ve read, I do so because of what’s in them rather than what they look like or feel like.

Given all this I should be a great lover of ebooks. After all, what greater statement could there be that the physical book isn’t important and its content is king than to dispense with the book altogether? And I do like ebooks. But part of me still yearns for physical books too, and I buy many more of these than I do downloads.

I don’t value the book as an object so much as I value ‘books’. I like the feel of them, I find them easier to read for long periods than a screen, I like the way they can be handed around – which you can’t really do with downloads.

I can see why a special, beautiful or ancient book deserves to be in a museum. I might even go and take a look at it (except for the skin ones) but for me the point of the book, its beauty, its truth and its value, will always be what it contains.