A few weeks ago a new Kindle DX arrived at our house, destined for the hands of my DH. It’s big. It’s fancy. It puts his students’ manuscripts in a handy, readable format that doesn’t require paper. It reads books out loud. It’s just what he always wanted.
Given that I had almost five hundred mystery novels cross our threshold for a competition I was judging in 2009, I was a little burned out on books. Period. I liked the idea of owning an e-reader, but I wasn’t in any hurry to buy one. I like my MacBook Pro and live for my iTouch, so I thought I’d wait for an iPad. Then I saw the Nook. Pricey, but very cute and stylish. Then the DX came, and I was suddenly the owner of a gently used, first generation Kindle.
Who knew I would fall in love?
It’s not the object itself that I’ve fallen in love with. It’s kind of dorky looking and not all that intuitive to navigate given all its weird page numbering. It’s the words that draw themselves on the back of the screen magically, like the Mirror of Erised. It’s the instant availability of almost any darned book I want to read any time of day or night. It’s that I can open that book and immerse myself it in seconds. Most of all, it’s the fact that there’s nothing surrounding it to distract me from the words themselves. An ereader strips away everything but the story, which is–as a writer–what I’m interested in.
There. I’ve said it. I’m paperless, coverless, blurbless, and author photoless. And…it’s not so bad.
I know I’m going to bookseller hell for saying that.
But let me qualify my incendiary statement, please. For the most part books have become a tool for me and I use them surgically. I read for research and use them to fill the well from which I feed my imagination. My entertainment is my work. I’m not a browser. There are so many books out there that have already been written that–if we all stopped writing now–I wouldn’t be able to read them all in a lifetime. I wouldn’t even be able to read all the good ones. And it wouldn’t be possible or practical to keep all of those books in print forever. Words on paper are, at the end of it all, delible.
Think of all those ancient manuscripts locked away in Old World libraries. Think of all the information that is restricted to the lucky few who have special, scholarly access. We usually get reports of them–not the works themselves. Think of the writers from even the early and mid-twentieth century of whom you’ve never heard, but might enjoy. Their works have gone out of print and, worse, out of fashion. But who is to say we wouldn’t enjoy them?
I can only compare books to music. (God bless music.) Back in the eighties I engineered a radio show called Walter Parker’s Jazzstream (not the VPR Walter Parker). Walter would show up at the radio station with a tote bag full of carefully preserved record albums–LPs, 45s and the occasional 78– and hand me a handwritten list of the cuts I was to play during the taping of the show. I never became a jazz musician, of course, but I learned a hell of a lot about the likes of Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, the Dorsey Brothers, Eubie Blake, Coleman Hawkins, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. That music has now–thanks to music fans, musicians, and preservationists–been duplicated into digital formats that will guarantee it will be forever accessible.
What’s so lovely about the availability of a hundred years of music recordings is that they have indeed become a sort of stream in which we can immerse ourselves anytime and anywhere, with very little effort. A plethora of satellite radio stations even gather programming for us and guarantee that we can plant ourselves firmly in the 1940s or 1970s if we like and never emerge. Services like Pandora pull us gently through time, keeping us grounded in our primary interests while increasing our exposure to tangential artists.
E-availability is obviously a fabulous historical advantage for both musicians and writers. But the book industry is in turmoil now, trying to figure out how books made of wood pulp are going to survive in the face of inexpensive e-versions of stories. I have no idea how bookstores will change either. When I walk into our local B&N, I see a lot of people sitting around reading and talking. Particularly in the cafe. They aren’t sitting there with ereaders, either. (Mostly they’re reading magazines which they then replace on the shelf–Ew. Bad form, folks.) The printed word invites conversation, and it’s lovely to see it happening in person rather than online. I love, too, to see the myriad book covers–a bookstore is like an art gallery that way. Books can truly be works of art. I get frustrated when the cover is bad and the paper is cheap–in that case, just give me the ebook. If there’s such a limited market for a book that it has to come out on toilet paper, then it properly belongs online.
Here’s the book I read on my Kindle yesterday. The Castle of Otranto by Sir Horace Walpole–released in 1764. It’s considered to be the first true Gothic novel. You know how in Jane Austen and Dickens and the Bronte books the heroines are always being chided for reading trashy, sensational novels? I’ve always wondered what those novels were, exactly. I have to think that this novel, which begins with a ginormous helmet falling out of the sky and killing a prince, must have been one of them. I had no cover image to refer to, no famous painting of Walpole or a prince to guide me. It was all me, my nasty cold and hours alone on the couch with my story. Could’ve been on paper. That would’ve been fine. But, no matter. The story’s the thing–and it was all mine. (And did I mention it was free? Just like the library.)