In late March, a few days after my mother died from cancer, I sat in a cold living room in the north of England with my two sisters as a lawyer read my mother's last will and testament.
We were told that her modest estate would be divided evenly among her three children, with one exception.
"Her collection of over 3,000 print books would go to her oldest daughter, Leanne," the lawyer said.
Upon hearing this, my sisters turned to me as tears welled up in my eyes. They knew that my mother and I had always shared an unwavering bond over books. My earliest memories take place in her bedroom as I watched her blow-dry her hair with one hand and read a novel with the other.
As I grew up, my mother held my hand as we wandered through the fictional worlds of Harper Lee, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. Birthdays and Christmases were always met with rectangular-shaped gifts.
And every book in our home was inscribed with a pithy note from my mother. "Dear Nick. Never live without beautiful books. Love Mum," she scribbled into a copy of War And Peace. When I was older, my mother and I shared long reading lists and spent hours critiquing plots and characters. But a few years ago, we got into a fight over books.
In 2011, when I was moving to California from New York, I decided to leave behind most of my books and to give up print in favour of the Kindle and later an iPad.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" she scolded me over the phone. "I didn't raise you to read on a bloody screen." She spoke passionately about being able to smell the pages of a print book as you read, to feel the edges of a hardcover in your hands. And that the notes left inside by the previous reader (often my mother) could pause time.
I didn't give in. I was convinced that digital was the future. That books, like CDs and VHS tapes, were archaic objects that didn't work as well as a screen.
"You can't search a print book," I argued. "And I can carry 1,000 books in my pocket, whereas you can only get two in your purse." Seeing that I wasn't going to budge, my mother tried to come to my side. This time, she held my hand as we wandered through the digitals worlds of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs.
But her Kindle (and later an iPad) sat mostly untouched in her office drawer. On birthdays and Christmases, heavy rectangular-shaped gifts still arrived in my mailbox.
And then, in March, she died.
After the will reading, my older sister sweetly offered to share my mother's library. I gratefully accepted. And then a few weeks later, while my younger sister was going through our mother's personal belongings, she came across something she thought I might like.
"Do you want mum's Kindle?" she asked via text message.
I stared at the message and thought about the irony of the endless debates I had with my mother. Now that she was gone, all I cared about were her physical books.
Over the years, I've gone back and forth over the merits of print versus digital books so many times, it's as if I were in an abusive relationship with myself. But my mother's passing and the sentimental value of her library have finally put an end to that debate in my head. It's not that one is superior to the other. They each have their place in this modern world.
For example, I love listening to audiobooks when I drive. And taking a Kindle on a long trip is nothing short of magical. But that doesn't mean I want my mother's old Kindle to remember her by. And I certainly wouldn't get much from her Audible collection.
Instead, I want her physical books. I want to be able to smell the paper, to see her handwriting inside, to know that she flipped those pages and that a piece of her lives on through them.
It was something that she clearly understood, too. As my mother approached her final days, accepting that the end was near, she asked me one morning to grab her favourite book, Alice In Wonderland, from her library. She wanted to write something inside the cover for my unborn son, whom she now accepted she would never meet.
After a brief introduction, she wrote one simple truth: "May your life be filled with beautiful words. Love Grandma." She never specified whether those words should be print or digital.
I hope she's up there looking down at his nursery, because if she is, she will see that copy of Alice In Wonderland there, next to some of her old books and a growing collection of new ones.
This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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