It was almost time to get on the air and WPKN’s staff was still having trouble with the connection that was to let them broadcast their show, Home Page, from the Institute Library on Chapel Street last Thursday. Host Binnie Klein made a joke about having to possibly contain her rage. Then the engineer announced they were ready to go, and the show began.
Home Page, with hosts Klein and architect Duo Dickinson, is a show about, well, homes, and the changing ways that people live in them and organize them. The working out of newfangled technical difficulties in the resolutely old setting of the Institute Library was a proper introduction to the theme of this installment: books and their place in our homes, especially as e-books become ever more popular. To explore the topic, Klein and Dickinson invited author Robin Black as a guest.
For those who attended, it was a chance to see how fleet and streamlined radio has become. Cranky internet connections notwithstanding, a radio show could be broadcast from the book-lined reading room of the library with not much more than a few microphones, a mixing board, and a laptop. Radio — the intimate medium, according to many — is itself a fairly old medium, as media go. And at the same time, there was something special about being there for the broadcast — even more intimate than radio.
Which is where books come in.
Klein began by talking about her own relationship to the books in her home. “How I arranged my books felt like the Holy Grail to my identity,” she said. “And I would rearrange them, thinking, ‘this is better. This will make me more interesting.’ But they also furnish a room.”
“Ultimately, books in homes are like our homes,” Dickinson said. They “encapsulate a very personal history, whether it’s a chemistry textbook, a copy of Wuthering Heights, or a murder mystery you read on vacation.”
Black revealed that when she was working on her first book, she suddenly felt pressure from the books that surrounded her. So she rearranged them by color. “It abstracted them,” she said. “It let me pretend that there weren’t words in them.”
Hanging over the discussion was the question of whether books would continue to survive as physical objects, and what they might mean as e-books became more popular. Dickinson — who, of the three, believed the most that physical books are on their way out — thought they might become almost like sacred objects. Which led to a discussion of the ways in which many books already are, to the people who read them.
Klein produced a copy of Candide that she said she’d been carrying around for decades, from apartment to apartment and into her home. It’s wasn’t the fact that it was Candide that made her hang onto it; it was the book as an object, its size, its shape, its design.
“You can tell a lot about it without even touching it,” Klein said.
“You mean you can judge a book by its cover?” Black said, to laughter.
So what about that onslaught of technology? Klein and Black believed books were here to stay, and Klein went on to see books and social media as feeding into the same impulses people have to show the rest of the world who they are.
“On social media, we’re curating our lives,” she said. “At home, we’re curating our libraries.”
Several audience members got up to share — in person and on air — their own relationships with books. One person related a story about deciding which book to pick to read on the subway, “because you never knew who you were going to run into.”
Another audience member talked about her bookshelf at home. “There are lots of books I have on my shelf that are unread,” she said, “and I like to think that it’s the idea of having unfinished projects that contributes to my longevity.”
Toward the end of the show, Black summed up how she thinks about books as someone who writes them.
“I imagine these things in my head and trap them in these little black squiggles,” she said, “and they need the reader to free them again,” she said. Yet all readers have their own relationships with the books they love.
“Nobody has ever read the same book as anyone else,” Black said.
The staff had made an applause sign to end the show right. They ended up not needing it.