Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Reading Cart Before the eHorse

(cc) Douglas CooteyBen Crowder mentioned something in his blog post "On Reading" that brought into still clarity something that has been knocking about the back of my head for the past few months.

"I almost feel like I’m uttering sacrilege, but format is only a minor part of the experience. The real thing is the words, people. That’s what matters. Everything else (typography, paperback vs. hardcover vs. ebook, etc.) is secondary — still important, yes, but the people who are bemoaning the death of print are fixating on the wrong thing. It wasn’t the smell of paper that made me love reading (though that was part of it). It was the words, the story, the act of turning a string of letters into a vivid imaginative experience that changed who I was every time it happened. And that can happen whether you’re reading the book in hardcover or in paperback or on an iPhone or on your Kindle or on your laptop or on thousands of handwritten post-it notes. Don’t forget that. It’s words all the way down."

As we experience the vanguard of the eBook era in its full electronic force, many bibliophiles lament this new dawn. There is a great deal of loving prose dedicated to the tactile experience of book reading. People mention the sounds of pages turning, the scents of paper both old and new, and the heft of the book in one's hand. They go into glorious detail on the thrill of walking through used bookstores with their labyrinthine rooms within rooms within rooms of books stacked from floor to ceiling. Books in boxes. Books in stacks. Books in tidy, yet ragged, rows.

Books take on metaphor in their writings. Books as life. Books as light. Books as windows into a better world.

My first vivid memories of loving books is also linked with one of my saddest memories. As a young boy with ADHD (at the time labelled Hyperkinesis), I was a fidgety thing and too much for my second grade teacher in a school so old fashioned that the desks still had inkwells. She became accustomed to sending me to the library whenever she disapproved of me. I spent a lot of time in that tiny room that I referred to as a closet. Teachers would come in, grab materials, then leave. But I remained. The school's collection of Hardy Boys books as well as others saved me from boredom and stagnation. Imagine my teacher's frustration that no matter how much she isolated me, I still scored well on her tests—a flip side to the ADHD coin. Books as rebellion for me. Books as knowledge. Books as escape. My mother finally learned what was going on and rained Hell down upon the heads of the Powers that Be, but I am fortunate that I grew fond of books during this time.

The wonderful experience of books that I, too, have a lifelong love for with its sensual massage on the senses is not why I read, however. Here I diverge from fellow bibliophiles. Crowder touched upon the truth of the matter—that the words and what they convey into our minds is why reading is important to us—but I disagreed with him that "the smell of paper" had anything to do with why I, and perhaps he, love reading.

I posit that we came to love the sensory experience of books because of our initial love for reading, not the other way around. As a young boy, I ogled at large libraries not because the shelves contained books, but because all those books contained stories I hadn't read yet. It was only afterwards that the senses began to reinforce this love for reading. Even today when I purchase old editions of books, I don't fondle the outside and sniff at the binding. I first open the book to read it. I gaze upon the illustrations. Only then do I enjoy the broken quality of old ink over paper and the antiquated state of history in my hands. It is the content, first, that I care for.

I buy books, I borrow them from friends and libraries, and I collect them. Yet eBooks for me are grandly convenient. The cheaper they become, the more they will fill the modern need for ephemeral information on the go. In fact, I find myself wishing more and more that many of the books I am reading were on my iPad. I believe eBooks will not replace print where print is irreplaceable: the physical presentation. However, where communication, not presentation, is the goal, eBooks will rage through those dusty, musty collections of pages like a wildfire. Already, small presses are closing their print shops and surging to renewed life online with print-on-demand and expanded eBook catalogs. The barrier to entry for eBooks is so small; the wealth of material to publish is so vast.

Our children will know the love of books electronically. The white glow of the screen, the flick of fingers over virtual space, the heft of thousands of books, even entire online libraries, in the palm of their hands, the connectivity to their entire online social life… These will be the new sensory pleasures of book reading. In the very near future, book apps will incorporate social media. Soon book clubs will become real time events generating comments within the pages of the very books we are reading. We'll filter the comments locally, globally, or in a velvet roped room of our very own. It's a bright new world. There will be new experiences to wash over our senses because of the new medium, new labyrinths to lose ourselves into, but our love for the words and the ideas they convey will remain unchanged.

Follow me on Twitter for my ADHD escapades at @SplinteredMind or my novel writing project over at @DouglasCootey. And if you're a glutton for punishment you can friend me on Facebook as well.