Thursday, August 04, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Books

"Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent or praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe."--Somerset Maugham

Are books at an end? Is John Henry truly going to lose the fight to the steam engine? (The analogy is charming, but inapt. Does anyone truly want to return to the days of manual labor, doing jobs a machine can do? Not if you've ever done manual labor, you don't....). I don't know. I don't think so, but what, I have a crystal ball and it isn't cloudy?

There is the Kindle ad running now, where the woman comments on her large bag that carries several books and magazines, and the man responds his Kindle holds thousands of books and magazines. The space around them is magically populated with probably more books than I have on the 7 bookshelves in my house (I've been cutting down over the years, and occasionally regret the loss of some book I know realize I've abandoned in time) to represent the compact wonder in his hands. And I wonder: why would I want to keep all those books in one place, on one reader? And what if I lose the reader?

I also wonder how accessible the books are. I can can my bookshelves without the trouble of flicking correctly on a screen, or remembering which button to push, or waiting for the processor to respond. I can lay the book down spread-eagled where I stopped, put a book mark in it, pile it on my desk, my nightstand, any convenient flat surface. What methods do I have to use to recover the place I left off reading, and the book, in a reader? Undoubtedly some new skill I could learn, if I wanted to. But even my college-age daughter, who grew up on computers, isn't interested in e-readers; so it isn't solely a consequence of my age that I am such a Luddite on the subject. But back to the practical question: do I really want to carry so many books with me? Is that really a benefit?

Maugham's story, "The Book-Bag," which I quoted above, first inspired me to carry a book bag of my own on trips. I grab four or five titles, some aspirational (I hope to read them), some I'm actually reading, some I want for comfort or surprise. I suppose I could carry them all on an e-reader, but why would I want to? If I limt my supply, I'm forced to read what I have. If I have my entire library with me, I'm probably more likely to ignore it all, as I too often do at home.

And there's the other problem: at this point, I own LP's, and the world is going CD. Do I buy CD's to replace all my LP's? I didn't last time. And are all the obscure and small press titles going to be available in e-form? No time soon, I'll warrant. What is available is popular titles and, frankly, I'm not interested in those. I worked in a bookstore for almost a decade, I began to drown in the tide of titles cranked out every year, most of which disappear again (returned to the publisher) without anyone so much as cracking their spines. What would an e-reader do for me, except demand I read what I don't want to read?

Or, in the famous case of 1984, allow the merchant (Amazon) to retrieve the title from my Kindle, because Amazon decided it didn't have the license for that e-version. I don't want my bookseller entering my house and removing books from my shelves. Why should they enter my Kindle and refund my purchase without my permission?

There are other problems coming along, such as whether books are hardware or software. Which, actually, is the problem right now. Do I buy the author's thoughts only, or the paper they are printed on? I like to mark up my books (something Clifton Fadiman taught me to do; see, I remember my important teachers!). How do I mark up a Kindle text? With Word? With Pages? Notepad? A grease pencil on the screen? Sometimes those notes are incredibly valuable to me, especially when I find them years later. They are like messages to my future self from my past one, when I was deeply involved in that subject and recorded ideas I've already forgotten, but thankfully wrote down.

But what is a book? Software, the ideas only? Or hardware? Why, for example, do publishers spend so much money on covers and titles and publicity? In England, the Harry Potter books started selling with two types of cover art: one for children, one for adults. Why? Because it increased sales, and allowed more people to enjoy the books. Probably less of a problem on an e-reader, as your book is always in a plain brown wrapper, so to speak. But what of authors you've never heard of? How do you browse e-books the way you do paper books? Can you read through them as you wish, or is it only as B&N and Amazon allow? Does the cover intrigue you, make you curious, make you decide to pull the book and read it? If not, what do you buy, except what you already know to buy? What will we miss unless marketing of e-books becomes available enough to encourage taking a chance, and how will it catch our eye? J.K. Rowling apparently dreamed of seeing one of her books in the window of an Edinburgh bookstore. Should new writers dream of seeing their books on a webpage at Amazon, and is that the same thing? Will we gather in bookstores bare of books, to stare at each others screens and recommend something that exists only as pixels? Is there no value to the tangible? Are we all going to be the most redoubtable of Protestants in order to remain readers at all?

Of course, marketing problems can be solved, and probably will. But I'm still left with the technical questions, and the questions of physicality. Scrolls and parchment, while charming in Harry Potter's world, were long since left behind for books (which even Harry's school has). It was a far better method for storing, and retrieving, information. E-books have some advantages over books, but do they truly eclipse them the way books replace scrolls?

Of that, I am not so sure at all.....


  1. Sherri1:00 PM

    Allow me to speak from the other side of the divide. I read more than ever with my Kindle, because it's such a convenient size that it always goes with me, and so my current book is always with me no matter how big the book is. There's no skill to be learned in remembering where your place is in the book - the Kindle remembers it for you. I can and do make notes on my ebooks, and highlight passages, using the keyboard on my Kindle. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages for me is that I can easily find any of my ebooks, where I often search in vain for a physical book I know I have but can't find on my many shelves.

    As for 1984, Amazon admits that they made a mistake in the way they handled that, and will not do it again.

    As for titles available, the obscure and small press books are more likely to be available on Kindle than in paper now, because of cost. Amazon has almost a million titles available for Kindle, and that doesn't include the free, out of copyright titles available from Project Gutenberg. It's not just popular titles anymore. Increasingly, backlist and out of print titles are being added as well.

    I'm a voracious reader, and of an age with you, and I love my Kindle.

  2. It's clearly a matter of preference, and arguing about it is rather like arguing about the superiority of chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream. I gotta say, though:

    As for 1984, Amazon admits that they made a mistake in the way they handled that, and will not do it again.

    Well, until they do it again. The problem is the power to do so exists only with e-readers. No bookstore could ever do that. It disturbs me in ways that disturb me to know someone entered my house without my permission, even if they didn't take anything. I don't like the idea of the retailer always knowing what I own, and claiming a superior right of possession just because it isn't, in one sense only, a physical possession. It goes back to the question: is a book software, or hardware? And the further question: who owns it? That answer is clear in one case, apparently unclear in the other. I'm not sure it should be unclear, but I don't like the answer Amazon used, and see no reason why they couldn't use it again.

    As for titles available, the obscure and small press books are more likely to be available on Kindle than in paper now, because of cost. Amazon has almost a million titles available for Kindle, and that doesn't include the free, out of copyright titles available from Project Gutenberg. It's not just popular titles anymore. Increasingly, backlist and out of print titles are being added as well.

    The books I read aren't the products of small presses run for aesthetic purposes, so I'm not sure how available they are in e-editions. It may be in the future the titles I'm thinking of are more readily available on a screen than in print, because of costs. But it may not be true, also.

    Ultimately, it's a matter of personal choice. I prefer bound books, though I know people my age and older who love their e-readers. If I have any objection to change, it's an objection to the idea that books will end, and electronics will succeed them, as the book supplanted the scroll. That outcome, I wouldn't be happy about.

    Discussing which we prefer, though, is kinda fun. :-)

  3. Sherri5:21 PM

    I'm not trying to convert you; I'm not a tech triumphalist, and I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both physical books and ebooks. I just reacted to the tone I felt in your post that ebooks were not for real readers, but maybe I was reading something into that wasn't there. That's a common argument that people make against ereaders, that they are fine if all you want to read is the latest thriller from James Patterson.

    As for the ownership of ebooks, yes they are more ephemeral than physical books. The 1984 situation wouldn't have happened with physical book, though probably more because the situation would have been caught before the book ever made it to the bookseller. The digital world removes gatekeepers, and that has both good and bad implications.

    The bigger problem about ownership is not Amazon removing a book; that's easily countered by backing my books up. The bigger problem is that I don't have the ability to re-sell the book, or even lend it except under very constrained circumstances. I'm willing to accept those conditions as a tradeoff for the conveniences I get for having my books in digital form; others may not be. I've never been very good about re-selling my books, and as a result, I have way too many of them. I find that I'm feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I've accumulated over the years, including books, and as my daughter approaches college and we look at moving someplace smaller, I'm working on shedding stuff. I still want the content of the books, I just need fewer of them taking up space.

  4. The odd thing is, I'm not a "real reader" anymore. Maybe it's age, maybe it's too long in the bookstore (like working food service, you get tired of the product), but I'm not the "voracious reader" I once was.

    And I don't so much mind e-books as I don't want them replacing physical books. At least not until I've shuffled off this mortal coil. I don't see the advantages, but other people do. Ultimately, as I say, it's a preference, and you can't argue preferences.

    I still have LP's, too. I had to buy CD's, and even bought a few of my favorites on CD because LP's do wear out (so, it turns out, do CD's. Go figure). And while I got used to the new format, I've never cottoned to MP3's (although I have some of those, too). That's pretty much a matter of personal experience (my iTunes program keeps eliminating my library now; I don't know why. Every time I open it, I have to find everything again. It's still on my hard drive, but going through the process every time is a pain. That's something I never have to do with my CD's.)

    And maybe that's ultimately it: it's my relationship with technology. I got used to Blogger (kind of), but I've no interest in Facebook or Twitter. There are nice things about computers, but they still screw around with me (like that iTunes program does now), and it's an inconvenience I don't face with more traditional formats. So I don't want to get a Kindle and find out I have to learn even more tricks, and then figure out why those tricks don't work, one day.

    So it goes.

  5. It finally occurred to me that libraries are horcruxes. Part of one's soul is stored there--much of the memory part. So, just as Voldemort thought that his soul ought to have been stored in objects worthy of it, I prefer horcruxes that resemble myself--increasingly tattered and frayed, but with some remnant of a one-time dignity. Putting it all in a gizmo just isn't in the cards.

  6. I once thought of books as remnants of time. By purchasing them, I purchased the time, in the future, that I would spend with them.

    Which accounted for all the books on my shelves I still haven't read. I finally quit buying books for that reason alone. But the memory of the future, lingers.