Monday, January 31, 2011

In defence of the BOOK: in all of its glorious, dusty, old-fashioned splendour

EDIT( Feb 1): My friend Verity recently posted this response and I hope you will read it in conjunction with this post to get a more balanced sense of some of the e-reader debate out there

Call me old-fashioned; but I view the e-reader as a symbol of a society that has forgotten the pleasure of excavation. A world that struggles so harshly to ascertain a product at lightning speed it has waylaid the beauty of indolent discovery.

That’s right: hunting, finding, discovering, feeling, peeking, forging, tasting….
First off, reading for me is a tangible experience that exercises senses: smell, feel, weight, touch, friction-of-finger-and-page. I will never feel anything akin to cracking back a spine (or in my willowy carefulness, gingerly tugging back a page) or smelling the pages betwixt. For me, smell is my strongest trigger to memory. Thus, my favourite books and my favourite passages link to a scent that propels my brain into action.

A paragraph can take me back on vacation or a sentence to high school English class, or the streak of red pen under a favourite line to a perplexingly vulnerable moment. I am susceptible to a book’s marvelous passage to hallowed old depths and I am most attuned to this when I am smelling and feeling a book.

I like to book-watch: meaning I love to sneak a peek at what others are reading on the subway. Sometimes, as was the case on Friday afternoon, I looked up and saw a woman reading the Black Cat by Martha Grimes. Our eyes met and I smiled. A knowing smile. Finding a Grimes reader is labeling an immediate kindred spirit. An e-reader closes off your book from the world. It shuts out any possibility of communal readership and those magical kismet-moments and makes a private experience. Good-bye volatile moments or imaginings or snippets of hope that you’ll look up and find some dashing guy turning back the page of your favourite Sherlock Holmes edition.

Reading is an experience and books craft that experience in a way that an unfeeling digital device can never recreate. One might argue that the words are the book’s potency and transcribed any-which- way they hold their meaning. But, for me, the art of the book is part of the craft.
Book binding is an art form. The cover and design of a book is hallowed ground. Peering through a glass at a medieval bible or running your finger pads around a book owned and written in by a favourite author (I own a book that belonged to LM Montgomery) is a very concrete experience that bottling words into a crammed digital device can never realize.

Think of author signings: if we go the way of the e-reader, is it even necessary to spend delicious hours in line at IFOA inching toward your favourite writer-celebrity ( read: Ian Rankin)? Or, will Margaret Atwood concoct something that severs the tie between reader and author even more….?

As a booklover, one of the keenest pleasures I have is the exploration of bookish spaces: the library, bookstores, antiquarian markets, thrift-stores and rummage sales. The smell of a bookshop is a cherished thing indeed and the tangy taste of dust and worn pages is a thrill I find in little else. The birth of the e-reader has rendered these pleasures unnecessary.

About ten years ago, I made a pact with myself. I collect the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. Those familiar with the canon recognize that there are several books and short stories stringing the great detective’s life together. I promised myself I would NEVER buy a Nero Wolfe book online. I wrote a list of all of the books in the series and kept it well-creased and folded in my wallet. For ten years, I would peek into used bookstores, rummage sales, bookshops….anywhere … slowly and surely collecting all of the titles I needed.

It was excavation. It took patience and time and conviction. It would have been easy to click a button and e-bay the lot of them to my doorstep; but part of the triumph was the excitement of discovery.

From Boston to London, England, to New York to Toronto to Ottawa to Midland, Ontario…. I slowly and surely collected pieces of my puzzle until finally, last year, in Victoria, BC I found the last Nero Wolfe book I needed. I caressed that book and held on to it and the proprietor of the little mystery bookstore that held my treasure and myself shared a wonderful moment. A distinctive, memorable moment. A moment that never would have occurred had it been rendered digitally.

We live in a society where everything comes easily. Everything is run on battery power and everything from takeout to movies is available immediately through the World Wide Web. I harken back to a simpler time. Technology has already stripped us of language ( abbrievations in text messages and, hell, the GRAMMAR in text messages has murdered our use of English) , and technology has stripped us of the timeless form of letter writing. One might assert the same aforementioned argument that the words are the substance and the medium does not matter. I disagree. A letter in the mail holds far more significance for me than a hastily-typed email.
One of life’s most languid and extraordinary pleasures is a book. A BOOK. .. Not words smattered on a white screen while a cursor ticks listlessly in the corner. Not font formatted in singular mode and circumscribed to conform all of the matter available on a digital surface. A BOOK. You can’t get that tingle anywhere else.

You can’t walk into a glorious bookstore in Hastings with a slanted roof and Tudor windows and smell out an age old edition of Beatrix Potter if that text is immediately drawn to you and your heartless device at the speed of sound.

Must we sacrifice everything in pursuit of convenience? Book collecting is a culture. Book-loving is my sustainability. My battery is not super-charged by a key that promises to give my device 24 hours ( or days, or months… )of uninterrupted usage. I’m super charged by books. You don’t turn them on. You don’t click on a screen. You don’t bookmark with an internalized mouse-like cursor. You flip open a page.

Simplicity is beauty and beauty, apparently, is becoming a lost art.


Kailana said...

I am so on the fence about eReaders. I never used to want one, but now of course I have one, and I feel guilty. For me it was purely a space issue. The guy thought if I had an eReader I would buy less books. ha ha ha! I bought, um, 17 books with my Christmas money and only 3 of them were ebooks and the only reason I bought those three? Because I figured I had to get something since he was nice enough to buy me said eReader. Oh, and because one of them is strangely very hard to get, but is available as an ebook? The thing is, if I love the book I will wind up buying it anyway... So, really, he failed, but he tried, right?

I love second hand bookstores. I go to the one here ALL the time! I have certain authors I am always on the look-out for. Could I buy them online? Of course, but I never even think about it. Most of my online shopping is new releases.

I still like my eReader, though. I just hate really small font in books and this kills the problem. I read books in January I *probably* would have continued to put off... I discovered Sherlock Holmes and now I want the Annotated versions which are pricey, but so pretty.... I am just weird. I have fine eye sight for reading, but small font has always been a turnoff for me. I figure I need a magnifying glass... I know, it is terrible to the paper-back industry, but that's me... I can't make up my mind one way or another. If I had more space, I probably would never have considered an eReader, but I don't, so I did...

Rachel said...

i don't think you should feel guilty. you still, obviously, appreciate books a lot and it means that they are accessible to you in a way they weren't previously. Also, judging by where you live ( no matter how beautiful it is!!!), there are limited book options, unless you high tail it to halifax--- and even then the city is still limited ( although, I do remember being charmed by the mobile library in mahone bay!)

I think, for me, it's a revisionist thing. I would have to completely re-think my relationship with a book. Right now, it's still about visiting the library and the bookstore and packing a subway book ( based on size and easy accessibility) and keeping the hardcovers at home.

I think there are two types of readers in the world: those who can negotiate and use an e-reader and those who absolutely cannot fathom re-charging their brains to include it in their reading experience. I am in the latter.

I cannot curl up with a cold, unfeeling e-reader. I know that in many ways it is the words that matter; but for me that's like saying: don't worry about the taste, it's the nutritional value of the food that matters.

You want both.

Reading a BOOK--- an actual real, live book is what got me started on this whole rampant addiction when I was a child.

Reading on a screen is something I do for work and for email.

A book doesn't belong in that cold, unfeeling spac