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No. 492:

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 time.

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 work.

(Theme music)

This episode is an outgrowth of a special lecture I prepared for the Friends of The UH Library at the Detering Book Gallery in Houston in December 1990. It reflects significant input from Pat Bozeman, from the Friends of the Library organization.


From the September, 1896, Century Magazine.