ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 10, 2010
A couple of weeks ago at a Writers Guild meeting about our upcoming contract negotiations in 2011, I was catching up with some of my fellow members who I hadn’t seen since the contract negotiations and strike of 2007/2008.
Writers are not by nature tribal, it usually takes a powwow of some significance to get us to come out of our dens. I was telling them about the interesting time I was having marketing the new e-book edition of my novel, Blood is Pretty,
when one expressed, with a wince over the unclean,
that he was not sure he could ever get used to an e-reader like the Amazon Kindle or the Barnes & Noble Nook as he liked, “...to feel the heft of a real book.”
This is a sentiment I’ve heard often during these days of potential transition from ink impressed letters on paper leaves bound beneath a cover to digitally encoded and decoded letters electronically, and so magically it seems, made to appear on a screen encased in plastic. Indeed, literary legend and lion Ray Bradbury’s daughter enjoys the Kindle Amazon sent to her dad as a gift, because he refused to have anything to with as it did not, “...feel, look or smell like a book.”
Although he did like the fact that he could enlarge the type, a useful function given his failing eyesight, but that was not enough of an inducement to win him over. Although, in 1983 he both predicted that there would someday be ebooks and that they would be quite a good thing, as you can see in this CBS Sunday Morning memorial to him.
Given the fact that my basic interior design sensibility might be called “Classic Library of Classics” or “Nicely Appointed Previously Owned Tomes Establishment,” I quite understand how my Writers Guild colleague and my friend Ray Bradbury felt. As Thomas Jefferson said to John Adams in an 1815 letter, “I cannot live without books.”
The view of a large wooden bookcase filled with books in an orderly manner is as aesthetically pleasing to me—if not more so—than a stunning seascape,
a lush green forest,
a brilliant sunset or sunrise,
or even a classic Hollywood headshot of Grace Kelly.
I have no idea if this is at all an honorable feeling, it could well be just a quirk, even a fetish, albeit a harmless one, but whatever it is it has been mine for as long as I can remember. Not that I grew up in such an environment. My dad was not much of a reader, and although my mother was, she was a loyal patron of the public library, which happily kept books on shelves for her. The genesis of my love I can only assume came from watching English movies and television shows with scenes taking place in the large libraries of country manor houses lined with tall bookcases filled with beautiful leather-bound books.
Indeed, I’m quite sure this is true for as a young man I developed an irrational hate of dust jackets because they covered up the spines of books, which is what is seen when books are in bookshelves. Memories of all those wonderful leather-covered spines of books in those English movie country manor house libraries told my dying-to-be-snobbish mind that this is the only proper way to display books, despite my having few leather-bound books. Even the prosaic cloth-covered spines of the books I owned, though, seemed more proper to display that the thin paper of dust jackets which so easily tore and wore.
I relieved my books of their dust jackets and consigned them to the dustbin.
It took an attractive woman
to point out to me that I was an idiot. “The reason they are called dust jackets is that they protect the cloth binding against dust,” she informed me. “Besides they tell you something about the book and often have interesting covers.” She made her case well and I have not relieved a book of its jacket since, and have often regretted my actions when I spy a book in my bookcase that would now be well-clothed except for my youthful indiscretion. I later married that attractive woman, although not just for this bit of wisdom.
I am not prone to telling such confessional stories, but this one points out a useful fact to consider. In my love of books in bookcases—and in hand, experiencing their heft, look, feel and smell—I am treating books as objects or, possibly better said, artifacts, which, of course, they are. But a book is also the content, the information; amusement; comfort and joy; calls to action; revelations; tears and laughter that may be contained within. Which, if we were compelled to choose, is more important—the artifact or the content?
When I was a boy sitting around the dinner table, eating my vegetables, which often came from a can,
my father would often remark, “These are nowhere near as good as the wonderful fresh vegetables my mom use to make when I was a boy.” I would just as often—because I was a smart-ass—say, “You know, Dad, I’ll bet you when I’m a father in the Twenty-first Century and we’re eating our vegetable pills, I’ll be saying, ‘These are nowhere near as good as the wonderful canned vegetables my mom use to make when I was a boy.’”
I was wrong. No one that I know of eats their vegetables in a pill, and the technological innovation of the vacuum-packed can, while still being used, is not much of an object of nostalgic reflection. It is just a delivery system. It has the advantage of shelf life but not usually the advantage of its contents having a lively taste. If you want your vegetables to have lively taste, you’ll need fresh vegetables, and to get them you’ll need to become your own delivery system by growing them yourself or trust the delivery systems of a local provider.
The content of a thing is ultimately the most important.
The book, what we are now calling the traditional book, “...a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers,” has been both a more successful and less successful delivery system than the vacuum-packed can. It never alters the “taste” of its contents, but, because it is prone to wear and tear, mold and mildew, not to mention the evil of dust and the negligence of borrowers,
it does not always have a long shelf life. However, it is quite user-friendly—portable with pages not difficult to turn, easy on the eyes depending on the type size, and usually of a warm, inviting feel. You can underline and write in the margins if you so choose to desecrate it. In essence, books travel well with us. Books can be boon companions. If you are a book reader—and who reading this blog wouldn’t be—books might well figure into highlights of your personal history. That book or series of books you shared with your best childhood buddy, say those Frazzeta cover-illustrated paperbacks of the Mars novels by Edgar Rich Burroughs; that beat up copy of Siddhartha you were reading while sitting around the collage quad that attracted the attention of that long-haired blonde beauty who looked just liked Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas; that Saul Bellow novel that kept dogging you when you were in your twenties—you loved it, you hated it, you loved it, you hated it—; that rare book of short stories from her favorite author that you “scored” in finding at a used book store and gave to her, her smile back convincing you that she was indeed the love of your life; those Dr. Seuss books you read out loud to your kids, acting them out in a gloriously foolish performance; that dark, dangerous, bloody serial-killer novel you read while sitting on a warm, sunny beach somewhere during your most wonderful vacation ever; that great jazz musician’s biography you read while on a long train trip, the train providing the rhythm section. You can remember the look, the feel, the touch, the cover, the heft of all of these books and you remember them with great fondness, yet isn’t it the content that really deserves to be part of your memory? Wasn’t the delivery system—the look, the feel, the touch, the cover, the heft—really just, dare I call it, an appendix to the content?
Smells can bring on a flood of memories, but aren't they just the memories of smells? The aroma of a great meal is delightful, but it is not the aroma that will nourish you.
I do not believe in the human soul, but I do believe in the soul of books, and the soul of books is their content, not their delivery system.
E-books have become exponentially more popular in the last year or two. This seems to date from the introduction of the Amazon Kindle, which was deemed far more user-friendly, albeit in a different way than the printed book, than any previous e-reader. There are two Amazon Kindle Facebook pages that I check in with daily. Here’s what some of the users of that device have to say.
“My friend's son is serving in Afghanistan. He ordered a Kindle and loves it. Unfortunately, it got stepped on. Amazon is replacing it for free! I love doing business with companies who support our troops. Loved my Kindle before, love it even more now!”
“My Kindle is loaded with books and vacation is about to start. Woohoo!!!”
“Kindle is keeping me physically fit. I could never find a book with a font I could read while working out so often I quit early out of boredom. Thanks to the Kindle and its adjustable fonts, I can read while working out and I stay at the gym much longer now.”
“I'm exhausted from reading too much...Thanks, Kindle, now I'm a couch potato of note.”
Which was answered by this comment:
“I wish I was just a couch potato...problem is I'm finding all new ways to be a potato...park potato, lunch potato, car potato, waiting room potato, long line potato, intermission potato....the list goes on...that darn kindle is too easy to read ANYWHERE!!!! I love it!”
I don’t doubt that these enthusiastic lovers of the Kindle are right now building up wonderful memories of how it is becoming their literary best-friend, their companion for life, nor do I doubt that some of these memories will revolve around the fact that these e-readers seem to be even more user-friendly than the traditional book. Their memories will involve such attributes as carrying the complete collection of your favorite author’s works (for you can store up to 3500 books), so that if while reading one in, say, a mystery series, and the character mentions something that happened four books ago and you wanted to read that scene in that book, you can without leaving your seat, whether it be in a Starbucks, on a plane or train, at the doctor’s office, or, most conveniently, the donut seat in your bathroom. You can check a quote from Dickens or Austin or Twain or Hemingway by just doing a search instead of thumbing through your paper copy desperately trying to remember what chapter it was in, whether it came early or late in the story, or if it’s even in David Copperfield, maybe it was in Oliver Twist. You can highlight and look up the definition of a word without having to cart a dictionary around everywhere with you, and, indeed, with the Kindle, you can cart a dictionary around everywhere with you. Here is a delivery system that seems to enhance the “taste” of its contents, not diminish it.
What then is the future of the traditional book? In the short run, these Kindle owner comments seem to give a good indication:
“I have hundreds of books some signed, some old, some rare I will NEVER part with them, how can I?”
“I will never be able to stop collecting paper books...I love my kindle and my books...why should you have to choose one over the other."
“Umm gang.. You are allowed to have both mediums. Book police will not arrest you if you get one or both. It does not have to be either/or... I buy both quite a bit.”
As to the long-range future of the traditional book? I don’t know. I do, though, know that no one reads The Iliad and The Odyssey on scrolls as they did in ancient Greece and Rome,
and I know that the colonists who may well settle on the Moon and the planet Mars and the generations of explorers who may venture out of our solar system in starships will not be taking traditional books with them—they just weigh too much. However, they will be able to—in both personal e-readers and in digital libraries—take the whole of their species’ literary output if they so desire.
Indeed, if we do colonize the Moon and Mars and send people off in generational ships, we better damn well send them off with the whole of our literary output. Because if we don’t do that, what then are we really sending to the stars?
Here on Earth, traditional books may become nothing but collector's items, ancient, often beautiful artifacts of a time gone by, or newly printed and bound books, created at great expense and sold at great cost to give a feeling of those times gone by. I, as I sit in my book-lined home, or visit my favorite bookstore, find that extremely sad. The next generation though, or the generation beyond that, will most likely look back at me and wonder, Why?
As long as the content survives, as long as the thoughts, passions, intelligence and even perversions of the human mind survive, the Book, no matter what physical delivery system delivers it into a reader’s hands, will survive.
All my books are available as ebooks and some are also available in print and audio editions. You can check them out HERE.