On a bookshelf above my desk, Thomas Hickey looks down at me every day with his perpetual expression of forlorn longing.
All I know of Mr. Hickey is that he lived at 14 Patrick Street, Fermoy, and that he was 45 years old when he died on Oct. 28, 1942.
Fermoy, the Web tells me, is in County Cork, Ireland. I suppose Mr. Hickey could have died in the war, but when I look at his expression, so full of a sighing frailty, it seems possible that he died of tuberculosis, or even a broken heart.
His photograph and the few biographical details are printed on a little funeral card, about 3½ by 2 inches. There are prayers and statements of faith on the front of the card, and on the back there is a little image of the Virgin Mary.
I thought of Mr. Hickey’s photograph a couple of weeks ago, when I covered a panel discussion of the future of the printed word at the Billings Public Library. There was talk of magazines and newspapers, and even of digital publications like Last Best News, but I kept thinking of books.
The discussion did include some remarks about books, from panelists and from people in the audience — thoughts on the tactile pleasures of holding a book and of turning the pages, of the importance of a book’s heft and physical presence.
I agreed with all of it. Though I said in the story I wrote about the event that the discussion would have benefited from the perspective of someone too young to know anything about the attraction of paper and ink, that was only because I honestly would like to know what it is like to have no connection to books.
I would go even further than the other traditionalists who spoke that evening. I would say that books are important not only because they deepen our understanding of the world, of human nature and of history, but because they immerse us in the world.
When you read a book on a Kindle of a Nook, you might read the same number of words as the reader of a book, but you don’t get everything that comes with a printed volume. Even though we are instructed not to judge a book by its cover, the cover and everything else about a printed book tells us, well, volumes about what is inside.
As a rule, the best-written manuscripts end up within the best-made books: beautiful dust jackets, elegant, durable bindings, paper of fine quality, evocative illustrations, sewn-in bookmark ribbons, even gilded page ends.
No finer volumes have been printed in the United States in the past couple of decades than those making up the ever-expanding Library of America. These consist of hundreds of volumes, the best books of fiction, poetry, history and biography that American writers have yet produced.
They are all printed on lightweight, acid-free paper, with sewn bindings that allow each volume to lie flat no matter where you open it. How anyone who has ever read a book like that can be satisfied with an electronic book is beyond me.
But these are the attractions of books that were discussed that evening at the library.
I want to add this: You will never find Thomas Hickey’s funeral card in a Kindle. I found his card in a book I purchased at a garage sale in Billings. I have also found newspaper clippings, photographs, bookmarks of every description, handwritten letters, pressed flowers and lines of poetry.
And of course there are all the books with writings in the margins, and handwritten corrections of typos and errors of fact. There is even something to be said for the wear and tear a book undergoes. I have a Penguin paperback edition of the Essays of Montaigne that a friend borrowed for a couple of years.
It came back bruised, battered, torn, smudged and creased. My friend lived on a farm and used the book like any other implement. I like it much more in its decrepitude than I did when I lent it out.
All of which is to say that when we read a real book we leave our mark on it as much as it leaves its mark on us. We become part of the chain of events that make a book important.
I love old books, but I have never cared much for collecting first editions or books signed by the author. Then a friend gave me a signed first edition of one of my favorite books, A.B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky.” I can’t even look at it, much less pick it up and handle it, without thinking that an author who changed my life wrote this book, then opened and signed the copy I’m holding in my own hands.
And though unfortunately I can’t even remember which of my books Thomas Hickey fell from when I opened it, it was only because of a printed book that I feel such a strange, strong bond with a man I never met, who died more than 70 years ago.
Try saying that about a Kindle.