The looming extinction of everyday art & history.

I was lightly accused, in a recent discussion on the Kindle Boards, of “railing against” ebooks when I posted the following message:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ebooks, the death of the print book, etc., and after reading yet another such article (on my computer, ironically) I immediately posted this facebook status:

[I]will not give up on print. Say what you will about the unstoppable advancement of technology – the experience of reading a book v. the experience of reading an ebook cannot be compared to anything else but newspaper articles, and articles take an average of maybe 10 minutes to read. I simply don’t see people giving up their books, or the book experience.

[My actual entry goes on, but it isn't interesting enough to include here. For the full, and very enlightening, thread of replies, visit the discussion here.]

Most of the responses were illuminating. Educational. Helpful. A couple were Kindle-defensive, even though I’d said nothing negative about e-readers. My books are available on Kindle and Smashwords – how could I possibly have anything bad to say about devices that allow people to read them, and so inexpensively (minus the cost of the e-reader itself)? I couldn’t. I don’t.

image belongs to

I understand the appeal of Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Sony Readers, and whatever else is out there. I’m certainly not anti-technology.The friendly Kindle readers who responded to my post on the Kindle boards let me know e-readers have many things to offer. You can apparently:

1. highlight passages

2. bookmark pages

3. change font sizes (I have to admit I like this one)

4. carry your whole library in one light container and choose from among hundreds of books while waiting for a bus, say, rather than having to keep reading the one you’re carrying in your bag – and you hate the one in your bag

5. buy individual books very, very, very inexpensively (particularly if they’re released by indie authors; otherwise, the Kindle edition is likely to cost just a bit less than – and sometimes more than – the paperback. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, for example, costs $9.60 for the Kindle edition, and $9.99 for the mass market paperback)

6. discover several new (usually indie) authors easily due to their e-books’ low prices and e-vailability (versus their nonexistence in most big-time – or small-time – bookstores)

7. move (the household, that is) from place to place without having boxes of books to lug with you (which is somewhat, but not entirely, similar to #4)

8. look up words and references within the very “book” you’re reading by touching the screen (pretty cool, I have to admit)

9. hold them comfortably, as they’re light and thin (and not unwieldy and awkward like hardcovers or thick paperbacks – think The Executioner’s Song or Harlot’s Ghost – or any other fat Mailer novel)

10. read without getting ink on your fingers (okay, this is not an “apparently” – this is obviously hard fact)

And all of that sounds great.


However, I know I won’t be dumping out my change jar and rolling dimes and quarters to buy a Sony Reader, a Nook,  a Kindle, or a whatever-else-comes-next.

I like the idea of the immediacy, the volume, the ease. The “Ooh – gadget!” factor and the touch-pad screen.

But I don’t want it, because I’m like everyone else. If I have this new excuse to move away from the long list of  things that have lost their meaningful place in our everydays–the VHS tapes, the record albums, and even the CDs–I will.

And I don’t want to be tempted.

When I was a teenager, we were still buying records. I only had five, but I had them. My dad had them, too. Lined up side-by-side on the shelf under his turntable, the band and singer-songwriter names in small font on the edges. When I wanted to listen to something, I would sit on the floor and flip through the covers until I found something I liked. When I was a little bit older and CDs were mainstream but records hadn’t yet been completely phased out, I flipped through the corner-worn record jackets stuffed tight in the wall-cubby of my new boyfriend’s apartment. What did he like? Who did he listen to? Who was he?

We do the same with books. We walk into the home of a new friend, a new lover, and one of the first things we scan is the bookshelf. What are you reading? Who do you like? Who are you?

The only thing we might notice before that is the art on the walls, but wall-art is intentional. It’s selected carefully, matched to our walls or rugs or living room furniture or personality – because it will be there, hanging at eye-level and on immediate display, for years.

We don’t put the same kind of thought into bringing home books. We walk into a bookstore, pick up a pretty cover, read the back, and buy it. When we’re finished with it, we slide it onto the shelf between a book on houseplants and a collection of short stories we picked up at another store some years ago.

And we take for granted – more often than not – the utter richness of the experience of reading a book. The simplest of activities, yes, but one that appeals to every one of our senses, even if only subtly, peripherally. The art of the cover draws us first, and its connection to the time of its publication is as telling as the subject matter, the details, of the words inside. Living history, it changes with each new printing and offers us, when we’re lucky enough to find a decades-old copy in a used book store, a tangible bit of the past we can take home with us. We open the cover and are intrigued by who may have owned it before and run a finger over the name written in cursive on the inside cover, then wonder what might have happened to her. Who she was, this woman who for some reason included the year beside her name, and where she lived, how her book found its way to the store.

When we fold back the paperback cover, it is slick and stiff with newness or soft and worn like old, time-rubbed money. The pages are white or they’re tanned by dust and years, flat and thin or grainy, bumpy, and thick – almost cringe-inducing, as when tracing a finger along an oxidized car hood – and the pages’ edges are the color of dandelion smear.

We bookmark our places with old business cards, Christmas ribbons, envelopes, or shopping receipts, and  years after reading, we may find a memory tucked between pages 7 and 8. We curl down corners marking sex-hot scenes and glide ballpoint lines under passages we want to recall. We slide our fingers over the words we love, tear out the pages that piss us off, and hurl incomprehensible narrative across the room. Books are our face-umbrellas in bright sunlight, fans in the heat, levelers of uneven tables, and warm decoration in an otherwise nondescript room. They are our age, they are our parents’ age, they are our grandparents’ age. When we turn the pages, we’re touching time.

I don’t want to be tempted away.

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2 Responses to The looming extinction of everyday art & history.

  1. Henry Baum says:

    Great post. The list of advantages misses the main thing for me: the ability to get books instantly. Say you want to read Huckleberry Finn. It’s possible you don’t have it on your bookshelf. You can go to Feedbooks and download it instantly, for free – That’s amazingly useful, as useful as using Google to research something.

    I totally agree with the “books make a room” concept – to the point where I distrust people if all they’ve got is a couple of coffee table books, but this isn’t an either/or thing. You can still have print books and then have an ereader access books whenever you want. That’s how I’m using it because I prefer to read a printed book but I LOVE being able to access everything.

  2. My problem is I love books too much. I have two large bookshelves filled and overflowing, and I need the space more than the old books. And I have three boxes in storage, that I’ll never open. Yeah, I know, give them away. Have you tried to pick up a bin with a hundred books in it? Sacre bleu! which I think means something about my sacroillyack, that bump thing in your back area.

    Anyway, I’m seeing that self-publishing does let readers decide what they like, whether they work in NYC or not. And we do need more forums like this to get the word out.

    Keep up the good work.

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