Hello, again. Sarah Graves, here, thinking about Kate Flora’s recent comment to the effect that the reading public needs to be educated about the value of bookstores. Being in a sour frame of mind, I thought when I read it that the phrase “reading public” is getting perilously close to being an oxymoron, lately. And as for the value of bookstores, you might as well try telling people about the value of horse-drawn carts. Even books themselves — I mean the physical objects — are fast being abandoned in favor of the slimmer, trimmer “content” they “deliver,” as if the words were like pizza in the easily-discarded pizza box.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. Once upon a time I borrowed a truly ridiculously large sum of money to buy a Xerox-820 II, one of the first word processors, and a massive printer to go with it, called the “lead sled” because it was so heavy. The printer paper came in rolls, and the floppy disks were 8-inchers. I was the first kid on my block to have this stuff! Even nowadays, I’m still attracted to shiny new electronic gear (though I no longer take out loans to buy it, or buy it at all, really — my work no longer requires much gear).
And as for e-readers — the delivery system of a book’s content — oh, I love me some Kindle, I do. For one thing, my nearest bookstore is thirty-five miles away, and besides, the lure of the late-night impulse book-buying jag is just too strong for me.
But. The day after Kate’s comment, I was in BookMarc’s in Bangor. And what I saw was…books. New ones, hardcovers, with dust jackets. And you know, I’d almost forgotten how ungodly beautiful they are. The one that just floored me, though all of them were lovely, was Umberto Eco’s new one, The Prague Cemetery. You can see it electronically, but here’s the thing: that red is much more gorgeous and subtle and sort of…threatening, in person, and the jacket paper is substantial, and the finish is a sort of semi-gloss matte, and, and…
And it wasn’t just content. It was a book entire. Not better, necessarily, for all purposes, than an electronic version. Not comparable at all, really. Like apples and hand grenades, this gorgeous book was an entirely different thing. And that thing is the thing the public must want, it seems to me, for the independent bookstore to survive. Which, I’m sorry, but I’m feeling a certain amount of despair that the public is going to do so, given what I see of what the public does in fact want.
Meanwhile, even the act of reading electronically — I’m optimistically assuming that the public will want to go on reading at all — is a different experience, it seems to me. Not necessarily better or worse, but…last winter, for instance, I read for six months straight on a Kindle, then read a “real” book. And I was shocked by how different reading the book felt. I wish I could articulate just what the difference was, but I haven’t been able to. Can someone who is reading this perhaps do so in the comments? The closest I can come is the difference between a film in a theater and that same film on TV. Diffferent media…and somehow, different messages?
Can it be that the physical book is part of the message, not just its container? And the e-book is part of some other, not-very-different but still not-quite-the-same message? What are we really tossing out when we keep only the “content?” What message are we getting from the e-book that we don’t consciously realize we’re receiving?
Honestly, I don’t know. I feel as I imagine I’d feel if, in 1908, I really liked my new Model T — but I couldn’t bear to get rid of the horses. Because they look good, feel good, smell good. Because I like the well-run stable, which for this analogy is the1908 equivalent of today’s independent bookstore.
But also because it’s a different way of living, driving a car instead of a horse-drawn cart; it means something, to decide to make the change, beyond just deciding to have more speed and convenience.
It means something, is all I’m saying. Only…what?