Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ode to the Paperback

For her next birthday, I bought my mother an eReader, just as she'd hoped. (It's okay, she already knows. It's what she wanted, since I wasn't able to afford her Plan A birthday present this year.)

I half-scoffed at the idea, myself. I love my paperbacks, and I stand united with other starving artists who have a hard enough time reaping any rewards from their efforts.

But I'm also drawn to emerging technologies. So naturally, not having one myself, I had to give the new eReader a test run. (Y'know, in case she has problems with it. Beta testers, y'know?...Yeah...)

This particular model came with 100 books preloaded, some of which I had already read, some of which I had been meaning to read. I thumbed through the list and found "The Picture of Dorian Gray" - and yes, I wanted to know how the book measured up against "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." (And what a weird sensation, using 2011 technology to read about 1891 London.)

And boy, did I feel guilty about it. Was I actually enjoying myself? Me, who had yelled so fiercely against the total financial unfairness of eBooks? After all, eBooks are, by design, cheaper to make - meaning that publishing houses and their writers earn less.

On the other hand, why am I still paying up to $10 for a book that requires neither paper nor printing press? It's an overglorified email, for crying out loud! I can spend $2.00 more and get the same book, in print, on sale at my local bookstore - you know, where people work and make a living.

Video killed the radio star, and eBooks are strangling the bookstore.

But, perhaps influenced by the philosophical prose of Oscar Wilde, I realized that this was a book stripped of its covers and gloss, and there I had in my hands the raw essence of the story that had been written. By taking it out of its trappings, the story had been reduced to its ideas and words.

And there is something to be said about convenience. Heading on a train next week to Toronto, I have every intention of traveling light. Instead of bringing a few bloated books with me (which often tangle up a hand I need for my luggage), I can stuff 100+ books into a device no more than an inch and a half thick and fits easily in my purse.

On my iTunes, at the moment, I have over 18,000 songs. Think of that for a moment - if I had a CD for every 15 of those songs, I would have 1,200 CDs taking up very precious space in my apartment. Yet I can pick up my laptop (and all 60 days of music, played end to end) and go to Toronto, or take it with me on a plane, or go to the cafe...And in a pocket of my laptop bag, I can store thousands of books. War and Peace, Don Quixote, Three Musketeers, and Moby Dick, all occupying the same shelf space with thousands of other titles - and still be able to zip up my laptop bag.

On top of that, I can sneak a peek into books like Harry Potter,
Hunger Games and Twilight and without being laughed at. After all, no one can see what book I'm reading. I could be reading Winnie the Pooh, and no one would notice the difference. (For the record, Peter Pan is next on my list, right after Robinson Crusoe.)

On the other hand (I declared on Sunday, holding my coffee in one hand and the eReader in the other), there is something to be said about old fashioned viral advertising.

Imagine seeing a sophisticated, 30-something young man at a local coffee pub when he is engrossed in a copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It speaks volumes about the author AND the reader.

Think of it - despite the fact that colonialism has slipped from everyday North American consciousness, people are still reading Conrad's book 110 years later. There must be something good about the story - something enduring. After reading a lot of sub-par material in the last few years, I crave something that can stand the test of time. That guy is reading it, and he seems to be enjoying it. Maybe this is something I want to read as well!

And think of the reader! Is he a student? Did he go back to school? Does he have no friends? Does he really enjoy reading? Is he a writer, trying to improve his craft? Is he smart and interesting, and does he think so? What does he see in this book? What fascination does it hold for him? (And why did it bore ME to tears? Did I miss something?)

Doesn't it beg old-fashioned conversation?

But replace the book with an eReader. That same young man could be reading some tawdry shoot-em-up, or the stock prices, or a dry psychology paper for an upcoming exam. Boring. And he's probably too busy to be interrupted. No need for conversation here.

And what reader, as child or adult, doesn't love going into a used book store, to be embraced by the dampened silence and by the scents of secrets and buried treasure? To run one's fingers along the spines of books is like caressing the lips of some sad Greek statue - you can't help but wonder what grief and fleeting joy these momentary mutes mean to whisper.

Stand in the middle of a bookstore - especially a used book store - and imagine: no two volumes are the same. Scrolling through a filtered search menu online doesn't convey the same sense of enduring human accomplishment.

And what if you met your favourite author (assuming you can't simply turn your phone around and snap a picture of the two of you in a buddy-hug)? Where could he or she sign? Signing increases the value (and re-sale price) of the printed book; signing an eReader only makes a mess of the screen.

For the record, video didn't kill the radio star. If anything, there are more independent artists out there now than ever before, thanks to the invention of the mp3. For better or worse (because "indy" does not always equate "good"), technology has enabled creativity, despite politics and popularity.

But getting a new Arcade Fire CD as a gift from a friend is far, far more precious than getting a gift card for iTunes. Possession becomes a touchstone of memory of time, place and friendship.

And the most powerful force of memory-evocation is that of smell. Hold an eReader, and you smell nothing but plastic. But open a book you had as a child, and you have entered a time capsule. To me, there is no better aromatherapy than opening an old, well-used and well-kept book.

eReaders are a convenience. Printed books are a treasure - one of increasing value as they inevitably become more rare.

And the sighs and dreams of the reader are captured between the pages of a book in print.

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