A Book and Its Cover

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?








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9 Responses to A Book and Its Cover

  1. Wow, Sarah–thought-provoking blog. Unfortunately, I don’t have an
    answer either. I read faster on my iPad. I wonder if that has anything to do with it.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Sarah, my household, too, has a Kindle. First generation. And I’ve read books on it, although to be truthful my husband has pretty much taken it over to read the Times every morning. In the past year I’ve only “borrowed” my Kindle back for travel or for research emergencies. Like the night my agent called and wanted me to read a book – right now! — because an editor wanted to know if I could write like that. (It turned out not to matter, but that’s another story.) Yes, the stories in Kindles are the same. But I like the comfort of a book I can stick post-its in to mark pages, and, for nonfiction, that I can keep in a pile next to my desk in case I need it. I like the reliability of hard covers. Maybe it’s habtt, but I like turning pages. I like the smell of books, and their heft. I can’t imagine cooking a recipe I’m reading on a Kindle. Somehow I can’t curl up in bed with a Kindle. Maybe someday I will. I’ve tried. But so far, I’m not in love. It’s just a firtation.

  3. Of course, books are beautiful to behold. They used to smell really good, too. That was back when hard cover books were the norm and there was a sort of outcry about how the advent of the paperback was the beginning of the end fro “real” reading. When i first started a mystery reading group at our local Barnes & Noble, 80% of the books on the shelves were hard covers with gorgeous dust jackets. Today most of them are soft covers, but they still have gorgeous covers. They don’t smell the same, of course, because of the technological changes in paper and ink manufacture.
    We still have several independent bookstores in town, including Raven winner, Once Upon a Crime. They too have more soft-cover books then they used to. Surveys show book reading is up and even if the forms are different, I doubt very much that books as we know them will disappear.
    But then, I suppose that monk in charge of the manuscript illumination section of the monastery may have said the same thing when he first heard about Gutenburg.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I love my Kindle, too. Especially for vacations. My suitcase used to be half full of books when I went away. But I also still buy books.

    There is an old saw that when new technology comes, it rarely completely supplants old technology. So many of us still have fireplaces, and stoves, and microwaves and central heating, even though the hearth used to do the whole job. There are a lot of very funny old articles from England from when people started having stoves in their kitchens about what a crazy, dangerous new technology this was.

    Then again, I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything on a scroll or in a folio. Mostly just looked at them in museums.

    If book becomes something special, and most information and entertainment come electronically, will that be enough to sustain a bookstore? I would think likely very few. I’m lucky enough to live close to some bookstores. In Somerville, it’s Porter Square Books less than a mile away. In Boothbay, it’s Sherman’s in the harbor and the Maine Coast Bookshop up the road in Damariscotta. I treasure them as a part of my life and would miss them terribly if there were gone.

  5. Hopefully there will continue to be room for all forms of reading. When my budget allows it, I plan to get a Kindle. But there’s nothing like a bookstore or library and the feel, smell and look of books. And the ability to browse for hours through them, finding treasures along the way. One of my favorite memories from grammar school days is when we’d order our own books from the Scholastic Book Service (I think that’s what it was called). And then months later, they would come in a big box and the teacher would hand them out. It was better than Christmas. I not only remember how they looked, but how they felt and smelled.
    It’s about more than just reading and I don’t see that happening with a Kindle.

  6. Vicki Doudera says:

    I don’t have a Kindle and at this point am not interested in one (even though my mom wanted to get me one for Christmas.) I feel like my reading time is so small and precious that I want it to be the WHOLE enchilada… a book.

    However, I’m all for reading — any form of reading — in whatever form. I do suspect you may be right, Sarah. Just like writing on paper is different than writing on a screen, reading from a book is no doubt somehow more satisfying to the senses.

  7. I guess you’re talking to the last (wo)man standing–I just don’t read electronically–but like Carl and Maureen suggest, my hope is that different forms for different purposes live side by side. Some ardent book lovers I know still like an e reader for travel.

    On the bookstore front, I can tell you that reports of its demise have been greatly you-know-what. Last year I began a holiday called Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and over the summer we drove cross country visiting bookstores to invite them to participate, and we saw bookstores full of customers, new bookstores opening, and in general a very exciting state of affairs.

    If you’re a bookstore lover, I’d love to share news of the upcoming Day! And thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  8. lil Gluckstern says:

    This is something I have pondered Kaitlyn. I wish Marshall McLuhan were around to comment on this, or some biophysicist would explain it. I read faster on my kindle, and I haven’t figured it out. Something with a screen is perceived differently by the brain, or so I guess. But I still love my books. They feel warmer 🙂

  9. John Clark says:

    Feel has a lot to do with it. I confess to taking a paperback into the woods every time I go hunting (heaven knows how many trophy bucks have been enlightened by looking over my shoulder while I was immersed in a great read). I can’t imagine doing the same with an expensive piece of hardware. There are also certain types of books that don’t lend themselves to ebook format, at least not yet. I have a lot of pop-up and experiential books at the Hartland Library. Kids love them to pieces (many pieces in fact), I can’t see those in ebook form for a while.

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