The printed word. Why I love books

I write a blog (two, actually), I post my lectures on my course web site, I publish papers in on-line journals and send PDF reprints to colleagues, I read published papers on the web, I communicate with collaborators through Skype or Facebook. It is 2012 after all.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, I . . . LOVE . . . BOOKS.

In my world, at least, the printed book will never go away. And if I ever move away from where I am now, the books and papers from my lab, my office, and three different rooms of my house will probably require their own truck. Some would call my collection excessive; I call it a good start.

Old meets new. Eight books and a MacBook.

One of the unique things about being a taxonomist is that, more than most scientists, we are tied to history. The application of a correct scientific name to an organism adheres to the Principle of Priority; that means that (for all intents and purposes) whatever name was proposed first for an animal, if properly formed, and properly published, after January 1758, is the correct name. Plants and microorganisms and even a few groups of animals have different starting points, but you get the point – history matters. In Taxonomy, as well as in Law, there is a rule of precedent. And that means that taxonomists must spend time reaching out across the centuries, across the languages of science, to find and read those monographs published in 1781 or 1800 or 1835. We are linked, through time, to colleagues long since gone. And their work still matters; it still carries the weight of priority.

A little piece of the history of flies

So to me, as a taxonomist, books are not just esthetically pleasing, both inside and out (hand-coloured plates! marbled covers and endpapers! raised leather-bound spines! those wonderful old Gothic fonts that the German printers loved!), they are living pieces of my science. They are current.

Covers as art. On the inside – insects of three continents

Beyond the need for taxonomists to have access to this vast library of old literature (and yes, I realize that it is absolutely essential to digitize this enormous body of knowledge to make it accessible to the community – and initiatives such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library are doing just that) I revel in the feel and the weight of old books, the sound of the heavy old pages turning, the smell of the paper and the binding. They connect me to the author, the printer, the binder, in a way that a PDF or an online file simply cannot.

Some of my books are barely held together with tape, some come apart in my hands when I use them, some have rarely been opened, some bear the scars of insects smashed between their pages in the field, or spilled cups of coffee, or an overzealous student annotating a key to species without even thinking. They all tell a story. And after too many hours staring at a computer monitor, it’s a refreshing and peaceful change to pull a book off the shelf and identify a species, or read about the natural history of a fly, or find out which species live where, or simply reconnect with the way my predecessors saw the world.

Books. Get some. Treasure them.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Lab and Field News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The printed word. Why I love books

  1. I couldn’t agree more! There is something magical about pulling a 100-year old volume off the shelf, caressing its tattered, gold letter-embossed spine, and smelling the aroma as you gently open its fragile, tattered pages!

  2. If I ever find time to take up yet another hobby, bookbinding is right at the top of the list.

  3. Sam Heads says:

    Great post Terry. I too am an incurable bibliomaniac!

  4. Pingback: The Weekly Flypaper » Biodiversity in Focus Blog

  5. Pingback: Many ways forward: towards a Biota of Canada | Lyman Entomological Museum

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