I’m standing in my local library, holding my laptop and a backpack full of books I’m using for research. In one corner, a group of middle schoolers is huddled around a computer playing some kind of first-person-shooter and yelling. On the rug in the children’s section a group of toddlers is playing a manic game of tag while their nannies sit in miniature chairs and gossip loudly. To my right, a librarian sits behind his desk, explaining (at full volume) to an elderly woman that the knitting circle is cancelled today. The whole place smells like B.O.
When did this happen to libraries? When did they go from hushed temples of learning, where knowledge reigned supreme, to glorified rec centers, where the borrowing of books is an afterthought, at best? When did we lose those beckoning labyrinths of floor-to-ceiling shelves where you could while away an afternoon, running your fingers over the spines of books, wondering what new worlds they contained? What’s happened to the oases of quiet, the dimly-lit, dark-carpeted, wood-paneled wonderlands of books? Are they really a thing of the past?
Recently, a hotel in Portugal has been making headlines for an unusual amenity it provides: books. The Literary Man hotel in Óbidos, Portugal, is a book-lover’s dream come true. It boasts a collection of 65,000 books, all available to be perused by guests at any time, day or night. Each room is stocked with a variety of titles, and the hotel’s lounge is a veritable library. Or, at least, a library in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Can’t you just imagine wandering the halls of this cozy hotel? It’s the middle of the night, perhaps, and you can’t sleep. You step into your slippers, pull on your robe, and pad down to the lounge. You pour yourself a drink, pull a book down off the shelf, and curl up in a cozy chair, nodding politely to the other guests who’ve done the same, but offering no other greeting, lest you disrupt the narratives playing out in their minds.
But why would anyone want to do that, someone might ask. Couldn’t that same person just reach over to his bedside table, turn on his Kindle, and have access to just as many (if not more) books without even getting out bed? The answer, of course, is yes. So, what’s the point of a hotel like this? Why would anyone want to visit it? What’s the source of its popularity?
While I’m no technophobe, I refuse to make the transition from paper books to electronic ones. There’s something about the feel of the book in my hands, my index finger slipped behind the page I’m reading, the weight of the pages already read in one hand, the pages left to read in the other, that I just can’t let go of. And, even as I see the obvious advantages to digital reading devices, I think we’re in danger of losing something important. Not the books themselves, necessarily, but the experience their physical presence creates.
Because when every book ever written had to exist in its physical form in order to be read, then locations had to exist in which to house them. And when locations dedicated specifically to books, and book reading, existed then those spaces naturally took on the characteristics of the libraries of yesteryear. They were quiet (because independent reading is a silent task), they provided comfortable seating (because reading is best done while seated, and takes time to do), and they were filled with possibility and discovery (because, in looking for one book, readers encountered many others along the way as they perused the shelves).
For better or worse, public libraries have become about much more than books. You can take classes, play computer games, use the internet. There is no longer an expectation of quiet, because not all those things are quiet tasks. The physical volume of books has been drastically diminished because now patrons can “check out” books electronically. “Storytime” for children has become a glorified music class.
But, even as many of us switch almost exclusively to e-readers, we still long for the library experience. Are hotels like The Literary Man the answer? Will there always be a place for physical books because of the environment they provide? Or is that fast becoming a thing of the past? Only time will tell. But, in the meantime, anyone want to come with me to Portugal?