The Weight of Words

"One more box left!" courtesy of Kjirtstin Bentson

I was browsing the picture books in my local children’s library recently when I discovered “It’s a Book” by Lane Smith. The book is marketed toward kids aged 6 and up, but I think it totally misses its target. It will resonate better with teens and adults who remember life before Kindle and iPods (Thank you and farewell, Steve Jobs).

The premise of “It’s a Book” is that a monkey is reading a book and his jackass friend doesn’t get it: “Does it scroll down?” “Do you need a password?” “Can you blog with it?” In essence, the plot of the story asks, “What is a book?” and answers that question by pointing out all the things a book can’t do.

It’s hard to prove a positive with negatives, but this wry picture book reminded me of Rene Magritte’s painting called “The Treachery of Images.” On the painting, which shows a pipe, Magritte wrote, “This is not a pipe.” The statement is true, and not true. The painting is of a pipe, yes, but the image on canvas is obviously not a real pipe.

So, one may ask, is an e-book or an MP3 audio version of a book a REAL book? It contains the same story as the printed text but you can’t turn the pages, just as you can’t pick up and smoke Magritte’s pipe (not that you would want to!).

When I moved to Maine this summer, I had four moving companies come to my apartment to give quotes for the cost of the move.  And four times, the designated moving guy counted up the stacks and stacks of book boxes and let out the same long sigh. (The fact that I lived on the fifth floor of a walk-up apartment didn’t help). Needless to say, the move cost twice as much as I was quoted; we had to get a second moving truck, not because one truck was too small, but because it was too heavy on the truck-stop scales. Oh, those books.

What is the saying about weighing your words carefully? I had to do it literally, and then pay as much again as those books probably cost new at the bookstore. It’s enough to stop and think. How much do your books cost you? Calculate the initial cost, then moving or storage, even the square-footage they take in your house or apartment, especially if you rent in NYC. Then think about how much you value your books in other terms of value: sentimental, educational, or priceless, given those irreplaceable notes in the margins.

I’m not planning to move ever again, but if I had to, I’d probably finally give away some of my real books. You can’t beat the ease and low cost of moving and storing electronic books.  Thanks to Google Books, easy downloads from my public library, and websites like YARN that post great literature online for free, I can survive for weeks without cracking open a hard-copy book. (Many of my texts are screenplays, which are becoming increasingly easy to access online with such sites as

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorThe thing is, I have a toddler who loves the word “book.” He can say “book.” Over and over: book, book, book, book. He can’t say “iPod”; that’s just too hard for his little tongue. What is a book? It’s whatever you can say it is.


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