The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

13 May 2011

A book has pages!

I had to get that off my chest.

These new electronic book gizmos, will they seriously become the reading experience of the new generation?  Will my nephews grow up reading Tolkien, Dickens, Hugo - good grief even Charles Schultz - on a screen?

I know I'm a pill about books.  It's an occupational hazard: I hope to publish one someday, and currently I'm responsible for keeping the shelves in order at school libraries the length and breadth of Sohoe.  But I know I can bring you over to my way of thinking, if only because I'm not going to let up about it.

First of all, I acknowledge the positives of electronic readers: volume.  Imagine having the entire Austen opus at your fingertips when you've got a craving for dashing heroes, or Bridget Jone's Diary and the sequel when you're stuck in traffic.

The positives are experiential as well as practical: just think about the feel of a book in your hand; the way well-loved volumes open naturally to the best bits; the unique texture of one cover to another; how a brand new book resists being breached. You come to recognize publishers by the paper they use, how well their bindings hold up, the fonts they prefer.  For a while I read fantasy novels of several different authors based on one cover artist whose work I really liked. I'm not a big fan of the paperback novel, especially if the story is long - the book tends to be hard to keep open once past the middle, and they fall apart quickly; but I do like the trade paperback format, even though it's more expensive. It's ssatisfyingly floppy.

I love the look of books, whether neat and tidy on their shelves, or piled on the floor beside the bed. How a book looks is important, never mind that business about books and covers.  Each book sets the stage for what you can expect inside by the cover art, the publisher's blurb, the size, the binding and the edging, and no two books are the same. I know that on my shelves, the Jane Jacobs book about the importance of neighbourhoods is a small, greyish Everyman edition. The two volumes on water colour have bright covers that make me feel like I could be a painter too, every time I look at them. The best of the Winnie the Pooh is the hardcover, while the paperback is good in a pinch. The beautiful Lord of the Rings trilogy has pride of place, but for actual use I have old, beat up copies that can be thumbed through and carried in one bag or another without causing me palpatations.

Books add ambiance to a room, to a home, and not only that, they tell the story of a person more truly than a resume: how many, where they're kept, how they're organized, what titles/subjects/authors. Are they anonymously wrapped in velum covers?  Shelved backwards? Arranged in the colour spectrum? Is the complete Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire suspiciously pristine?

When I read the brilliant Peter Wimsey mysteries, I like to have Donne open beside me, so I can read along with the poetical sleuth. In looking up the reference in the Catechism that I always forget but always refer to, I know it's the page with the orange high school year book bookmark. I know that the scene where Darcy first proposes to Lizzy has been dog-eared, and the scene where she finally accepts him is too close to the end. Scanning the pages of a dictionary, atlas, thesaurus, almanac often leads somewhere unexpected because another entry enticed me off my original path.

Try to convert all of that to an electronic reader, and you realize that the technology has stripped personality and sensuality out of the experience of reading.  A book or magazine or newspaper becomes cold, colourless, indistinguishable. Bland, boring, blah.  Three things books should never be.

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