Let Us Now Praise Famous Books

"Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent or praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe."--Somerset Maugham

Are books at an end? Is John Henry truly going to lose the fight to the steam engine? (The analogy is charming, but inapt. Does anyone truly want to return to the days of manual labor, doing jobs a machine can do? Not if you've ever done manual labor, you don't....). I don't know. I don't think so, but what, I have a crystal ball and it isn't cloudy?

There is the Kindle ad running now, where the woman comments on her large bag that carries several books and magazines, and the man responds his Kindle holds thousands of books and magazines. The space around them is magically populated with probably more books than I have on the 7 bookshelves in my house (I've been cutting down over the years, and occasionally regret the loss of some book I know realize I've abandoned in time) to represent the compact wonder in his hands. And I wonder: why would I want to keep all those books in one place, on one reader? And what if I lose the reader?

I also wonder how accessible the books are. I can can my bookshelves without the trouble of flicking correctly on a screen, or remembering which button to push, or waiting for the processor to respond. I can lay the book down spread-eagled where I stopped, put a book mark in it, pile it on my desk, my nightstand, any convenient flat surface. What methods do I have to use to recover the place I left off reading, and the book, in a reader? Undoubtedly some new skill I could learn, if I wanted to. But even my college-age daughter, who grew up on computers, isn't interested in e-readers; so it isn't solely a consequence of my age that I am such a Luddite on the subject. But back to the practical question: do I really want to carry so many books with me? Is that really a benefit?

Maugham's story, "The Book-Bag," which I quoted above, first inspired me to carry a book bag of my own on trips. I grab four or five titles, some aspirational (I hope to read them), some I'm actually reading, some I want for comfort or surprise. I suppose I could carry them all on an e-reader, but why would I want to? If I limt my supply, I'm forced to read what I have. If I have my entire library with me, I'm probably more likely to ignore it all, as I too often do at home.

And there's the other problem: at this point, I own LP's, and the world is going CD. Do I buy CD's to replace all my LP's? I didn't last time. And are all the obscure and small press titles going to be available in e-form? No time soon, I'll warrant. What is available is popular titles and, frankly, I'm not interested in those. I worked in a bookstore for almost a decade, I began to drown in the tide of titles cranked out every year, most of which disappear again (returned to the publisher) without anyone so much as cracking their spines. What would an e-reader do for me, except demand I read what I don't want to read?

Or, in the famous case of 1984, allow the merchant (Amazon) to retrieve the title from my Kindle, because Amazon decided it didn't have the license for that e-version. I don't want my bookseller entering my house and removing books from my shelves. Why should they enter my Kindle and refund my purchase without my permission?

There are other problems coming along, such as whether books are hardware or software. Which, actually, is the problem right now. Do I buy the author's thoughts only, or the paper they are printed on? I like to mark up my books (something Clifton Fadiman taught me to do; see, I remember my important teachers!). How do I mark up a Kindle text? With Word? With Pages? Notepad? A grease pencil on the screen? Sometimes those notes are incredibly valuable to me, especially when I find them years later. They are like messages to my future self from my past one, when I was deeply involved in that subject and recorded ideas I've already forgotten, but thankfully wrote down.

But what is a book? Software, the ideas only? Or hardware? Why, for example, do publishers spend so much money on covers and titles and publicity? In England, the Harry Potter books started selling with two types of cover art: one for children, one for adults. Why? Because it increased sales, and allowed more people to enjoy the books. Probably less of a problem on an e-reader, as your book is always in a plain brown wrapper, so to speak. But what of authors you've never heard of? How do you browse e-books the way you do paper books? Can you read through them as you wish, or is it only as B&N and Amazon allow? Does the cover intrigue you, make you curious, make you decide to pull the book and read it? If not, what do you buy, except what you already know to buy? What will we miss unless marketing of e-books becomes available enough to encourage taking a chance, and how will it catch our eye? J.K. Rowling apparently dreamed of seeing one of her books in the window of an Edinburgh bookstore. Should new writers dream of seeing their books on a webpage at Amazon, and is that the same thing? Will we gather in bookstores bare of books, to stare at each others screens and recommend something that exists only as pixels? Is there no value to the tangible? Are we all going to be the most redoubtable of Protestants in order to remain readers at all?

Of course, marketing problems can be solved, and probably will. But I'm still left with the technical questions, and the questions of physicality. Scrolls and parchment, while charming in Harry Potter's world, were long since left behind for books (which even Harry's school has). It was a far better method for storing, and retrieving, information. E-books have some advantages over books, but do they truly eclipse them the way books replace scrolls?

Of that, I am not so sure at all.....

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