At some point an electronic reader shall be mine. I’m anxious to enjoy the digital portability of many of my favorite volumes, pulling them up with a finger swipe and instantly pouring over some of the most delicious writing ever published. I simply adore language that “tastes” good — words designed to be read aloud and enjoyed by the ear as well as the mind.
I have on my shelves a modest but cherished collection of real books and I’ll likely hang onto them indefinitely. I have an abiding kinship with my books. While the convenience of e-books has made them so much more affordable than the paper variety, somehow I still suffer the regretful pang of melancholy that accompanies my sentiment for a genuine book.
Paperless publication will only continue to predominate. Still I find myself pining more and more for the feel of a trusty hardback in my mitts. In some distant future, unhindered by limited resources, I imagine myself the owner of a quiet home in the manner of an English country cottage. At its center would be a well-appointed library. A sizable room with floor-to-ceiling shelves, replete with a hand stocked selection of personal favorites — history, poetry, biographies and novels. One day my grandchildren and great grandchildren will discover this room and marvel at the strangely intriguing volumes there.
Of course the soothing crackle from a stone fireplace and the sturdy comfort of a wingback chair would make this library heaven on a rainy afternoon, or any afternoon or evening for that matter. There is something unmistakably wistful and warm in the feel of old paper and a sturdy binding resting in your lap, thumbing through the chapters as though one were conversing in quiet confidence with old friends.
There are so many finely tuned emotional discharges in good prose. For many I suppose the feeling is founded in the tradition of paper because there is something wonderfully tactile in the touch of a paper book, the sound of a turning page, and the aroma of it’s aging ink. Especially in that of a used book.
As the delightfully witty writer Helene Hanff remarked, “I do love second hand books that fall open to the page the previous owner read oftenest. The day Haslett came, he opened to, ‘I hate to read new books’ and I hollered, ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”
By the way, if you haven’t read the wonderful book “84 Charing Cross Road”, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a collection of correspondence between Ms. Hanff and a London bookseller named Frank Doel. Ann Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins starred in the 1986 film adaptation, which I almost recommend more highly than the book. Both book and film are sheer delights for intelligence, wit, and entertainment value. And a must for anyone enamored of fine language and literature.
Many of my books have been written in. Either by me or by a previous owner. To borrow again from Helene Hanff, “I love inscriptions on flyleafs and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned or reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”
Of late, much conversation has been given to the demise of the paper book. While I do appreciate the considerable expense incurred by publishers and booksellers for the manufacture and shipping of so many wood pulp volumes, I truly understand the plain logic in the boon of e-books. It makes perfect economic sense. It is the efficient commerce of intellectual property prudently executed.
E-books are convenient, clinical, efficient, cheap — and bereft of any of the tangible allure traditionally associated with publishing. They appeal to the intellect alone while abandoning the physical senses that have so long imbued the reading of a book with such sensory enjoyment as feel, smell and sound.
In short, however romantic the content of a written work, e-commerce effectively diminishes the consumer’s long held romance inherent in the embraceability of a well-bound book. A fragile electronic reader doesn’t quite capture the comfort found in a cloth binding, clean-cut pages and a coffee-stained dust jacket.
Of course, for me personally, my association with the written word has always been colored by the fact that I am a painfully slow reader. Electronic media is praised for its crisp efficiency and lightning speed. I on the other hand have always taken great comfort in the seemingly quiet patience of a book that takes all the time this remedial soul requires to let me scan, read, and re-read a passage that either I struggle to make sense of or am so enraptured by I must scribble a margin note or underline a particularly fetching phrase.
The glowing screen of an e-reader engenders no such tolerance of my antiquated ways, but rather seems to urge me to “get on with it” so as not to waste time, effort and battery life. At least it feels that way.
I’m sure I’ll embrace its virtues and settle into a level of comfort with an e-reader eventually. It is the unalterable direction in which the world is heading.
In my lifetime I’ve probably started two or three thousand books. But I’ve only finished a few hundred. And many I’ve re-read several times. Those are the volumes to which I cling, the ones that live on my shelves.
I was gratified to learn that Stephen King is also a very slow reader. He reads maybe 70 or 80 books a year. And all because he enjoys pouring over the text in much the same way I do.
I’m especially drawn to language that feels like it reads well aloud. As I’m reading, I treat the text as a story being shared with an audience. Its ability to captivate resides in the tempo and timbre at which it is delivered, in quite a similar fashion to a movie playing out in real time. It’s how my mind digests information.
Speed-reading delivers up the basic plot, character names and the scenes. But much of the grace, depth and emotional substance of a text is lost when we read in a hurry — at least, according to clinical studies on the subject, that is. All I know is, when I read, it demands time and concentration for me to fully appreciate the little subtleties and multi-faceted aspects of the human experience being portrayed.
Author Susan Hill asserts that fast reading does a disservice to both reader and writer. “Do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.”
I simply cannot agree with those who decry the continuance of paper books. Paper may not be the dominant print media in the future but, to my way of thinking, paper books will likely live on for many, many years to come.
I met the marvelous actor Ernest Borgnine the year before he died and he autographed his biography “Ernie” for me. You can’t do that with an e-book. Similarly, photo books simply cannot be electronically reproduced with the same fine imagery that in any way approximates the texture, gauge and sheen of a quality photography book.
There are several aspects of paper books with which an e-book cannot compete. Many of the books available on the market today may not even benefit from the nostalgic tangibles I’ve laid out here. For those publications, these observations become a very moot point.
Still in all, I do not believe paper is going away. At least not anytime soon.
I absolutely recognize the tremendous value and demand for electronic readers and, as I’ve said, I will be purchasing one myself. However I will always keep a cache of my precious paper books close at hand for the comfort they continue to provide. In much the same way Coke and Pepsi, and Mac and PC live side by side, so too will e-books and paper books, in one form or another, continue to coexist, hopefully in harmony. I believe it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste.
I also fully expect that I shall continue to read slowly. And boy, are my lips going to be tired.