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Ode to a Book: The Bibliophile Defends the Printed Page, Sort Of

The world is changing. In the last hundred years we’ve moved from the industrial age to the technological age. And now our technology upgrades so rapidly gadgets are obsolete almost as soon as they hit the market–a smaller, faster, cheaper version out as soon as you get the original. It leaves me wondering if there are any remaining constants, any traditions that transcend generations and gadgets.

Mostly, I don’t mind the techno-encroachment and the convenience it brings. But there is one place where the rapid demise of tradition makes me wince–the bookstore.

E-readers are exploding onto the market. These sleek tablet computers let you travel with an entire library, but take up no more space than a single book. They allow you to purchase new reading material anywhere you can find a wifi connection. E-readers and digital books are the wave of the future and I understand their  practicality and appeal, but I’m reluctant to give up the joy of cracking the binding and smelling the paper of a traditional printed book.

More than a feeling.

I grew up loving books, largely because I’m a night person. Like a lot of little kids, I didn’t want to go to bed. I was absolutely certain fascinating, exciting things happened as soon as I closed my eyes. So, I tried to push back my bedtime with bedtime stories. Maybe you did that too, begging your mom or dad for another book before going to sleep, one more story while they held you close and read words you could recite by heart, and all the while you’re rubbing your eyes and fighting off sleep.

Now that I have a niece, I’m rediscovering that same cozy, bedtime-story feeling. Baby Girl, now a toddler, loves her books. Once, I carried her too close to the bookshelf and she tried to launch all 21 pounds of herself at the shelf like a flying squirrel. When she wants a book, she’s gotta have her book–now. Her current favorite is Heads, written and illustrated by Matthew Van Fleet. It’s a book for babies and toddlers, complete with thick, easy to turn pages, different textures for her to touch, and tabs that she can push or pull to see the images on the page move.

Since Baby Girl started walking she doesn’t like sitting still or being held, there’s just too much for her to see and do. But sometimes, for book time, she puts that aside to sit on a lap, be cuddled, and turn pages. And in that moment I get to share something with that 21st century digital kid that I did when I was her age.

When I was little my favorite picture book was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day written by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz. I loved that book and I still do. There’s something strangely comforting in knowing that bad days can happen to anyone, even in Australia. In college, I wrote a column in the school paper about my distress over losing my copy of Alexander. Not long after reading that, a friend found me a replacement copy at a garage sale. This book is slightly battered and dog-eared with a bluish splotch on the cover that could either be fossilized gum or paint, I’m not sure. And yet, I like it even better for knowing it was read, and that sticky, little fingers turned the pages while someone read the familiar words aloud.

Bibliophile unplugged.

Packing for a trip requires at least three different power cords and chargers nowadays. I can’t tell you how tired I get of making sure to plug in, well, everything. It’s almost nice to have at least one thing that I know will work no matter how long ago I put it down and that makes a printed paperback more relaxing for me. And, as an ever-so-slightly clutzy person, I like knowing that if a book slides off my bed or gets bumped off a table or falls in the bathtub (that happened with my copy of The Great Brain), I can still read it.

Tradition.

And, it isn’t just the joy of the books themselves, it’s also the traditions I have with them. Browsing used bookstores is a habit that ranks just slightly below a compulsion for me. Armed with a list of the authors and books I’m looking for, I hunt the aisles. It’s like being in a Humane Society for books, all of them sitting there just waiting for a good home. While I know it’s easier to get a digital versions of some of the books I’m looking for, there isn’t that same thrill of the hunt involved with pointing, clicking, and downloading.

Viva la resistance!

My nostalgic love of traditional books has also taken on a slight air of resistance. I don’t like the idea of buying something but not really owning it. Can you resell your e-book after you read it? Share it with a friend? See, I can’t help think that e-books are being promoted by publishers who want to take a chunk out of the used-book market by creating single-use books. Sure an e-book is cheaper than a regular book, but since it can’t be resold everyone who wants to read it has to buy it. You can’t simply finish a book, tell someone you liked it, and then hand your book to the person. With ebooks, you either have to surrender your e-reader to the person for as long as it takes them to read the book, or, and more likely, that person has to buy a copy of the book you’re recommending. The second option is probably what publishers are aiming for, and it functions more like a book lease rather than an outright purchase.

Ode to a disappearing dream.

As a writer I’ve dreamed of having a book-signing. Now, I have to wonder if that’s going to be a dream lost to digital books. How would you even have a book-signing for an e-book? Writing is something of an undervalued skill. Since it is something nearly everyone can do it doesn’t garner a lot of respect. The idea of eventually having people gather to hear me read from my book and then sign copies of it for them helps keep me going. That I might have missed a window that was open for oh, the last few thousand years, is irksome.

I know that no matter what the format, print or digital, stories will still be told. And the story should be the important thing, not the medium. But books and I have spent a lot of good times together over the years and, judging from the state of my over-stuffed bookshelves, we’ll be spending a lot of time together for a while to come.

Who knows, the printed page, like vinyl records and horn-rimmed glasses, could become the new retro. I think I’ll crack a binding or two and try to start a trend. Lower the needle on my turntable on your way out.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Books, Lifestyle, Series

 

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