Saturday, April 12, 2008

In Praise of the Book

"But what's going to happen to all the books?" asked my friend ...

Having praised the new breed of digital book readers, I'd like to take a step back and argue the opposite case. First off, isn't it a bit of a misnomer to call these devices "readers?" To paraphrase the slogan of pro-gun lobbyists, "Computers don't read books, people read books." All these devices do is show them to us; we still have to read them. They should be called "viewers" or "displayers," but that is way too dull to ever catch on, so we are probably doomed to call them readers from now on. Soon the noun "reader" will come to mean the thing, not the person who reads, and instead of "reading" we will end up "readering" our books.

Of course it's a good thing that we still have to read, and that we have so much material available both from the present and the past. It's also an advantage that the size of our personal libraries will no longer be limited by the amount of windowless wall space we are willing to devote to bookshelves in our homes. But two incidents have forced me to look again at what we are losing in the transition.

The first one was a visit with my high school English teacher and personal mentor, Harry. For years I've been telling him that digital books are on the way, and how great that will be. Some time ago I showed him a laptop computer with text on the screen just to give him an idea, but he was unimpressed. Even though this machine was probably outweighed by the Oxford English Dictionary, it seemed way too heavy and clunky to him--not the sort of thing you would curl up in bed with before going to sleep.

Even though I know people who would do that, I had to concede his point. I also knew that his attention span would far outlast any available battery (we're talking Marcel Proust), and the idea of having to be plugged in while you read was a non-starter. But just wait, I told him, they're getting smaller and lighter all the time ...

So naturally I had to show off my cute little Sony when I got one. Small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, able to go weeks without a charge, lighter than a hardbound book, holding enough reading matter for an entire summer vacation ... it's Superbook!

"But," he said, his faced lined with concern, "what's going to happen to all the books?"

It's easy to dismiss this attitude as clinging to the past. Who would want to go back to the days of cassette tapes or vinyl LP's or player-piano rolls now that we have digital recording technology? Or, perhaps a better analogy, why would we copy a book by hand once the printing press has been invented? Or use a typewriter instead of a word processor?

But his feelings were not just nostalgia for the past. They came from a form of fetishism familiar to anyone who has ever loved a good book. Through the act of reading them these objects become parts of ourselves, as well as talismans representing their authors and the worlds of imagination contained within them. It's no accident that a staple of children's fiction is the magic book, one whose cover is a door into an enchanted other realm.

I remember a friend saying of a cherished volume of short stories, "I'm carrying it around like it's my velveteen rabbit." Is it possible we will ever feel the same way about our ebook readers, whose covers are always the same regardless of what text they contain, and whose pages never get dogeared and fly-spotted from use? Even the yellowing paper of an old book speaks to us of its age and lends import to its counsel.

The second incident involved Jack Kerouac. I've rediscovered him more than once since the first time, when I was in high school. This time it was due to a reading at our favorite bookstore, Books & Books, by John Leland, who has written Why Kerouac Matters. I won't tell you why if you don't know already, but I can say that the best thing about the reading was that it sent me back to read Kerouac again. Consulting my bookshelves (they occupy two of my windowless walls) I selected a battered copy of The Subterraneans, the same one I had bought and read while still in school so many years ago when it was newly published in paperback by Grove Press with a cover price of $1.45. (Let's not forget the fetishism of publishers, too.)

This book, containing some of Jack's most powerful and lively stream-of-consciousness prose, details--dissects might be a better word--his brief affair with a black woman who was going off her rocker in the hipster subculture of 1950's San Francisco. It was actually made into one of Hollywood's most atrocious movies (mercifully NOT available from Netflix) in which the part of Leo/Jack was played by George Peppard and his lover, Mardou, by the not only white but blond Leslie Caron, which kind of shows how they missed the whole point. In spite of a terrific jazz soundtrack by Andre Previn, featuring Gerry Mulligan and Carmen MacRae, I can only recommend that you read it, not watch it.

So one day this week that's what I was doing. I carried it into Chick'n Grill at lunchtime and had it on my tray while I paid. The cover caught the eye of the young woman at the register--The Subterraneans in big bold letters with the rough shape of the Golden Gate Bridge giving a sense of location.

"What's your book about?" she asked. In the moment that it took me to think how to answer, I noted the flash of intelligence in her eyes, and felt a sense of pride in the democratic lifestyle that spreads our culture widely, however thin it may be.

"The Beat Generation," I replied.

"The what?"

"You know, the beatniks? Back before the hippies?"

"Oh. Was that you?" A mischievous smile, letting me know my age.

"No, that was before me."

"What were they like?"

"Well, they were pretty far out."

She laughed, and took my money, and I took my book to eat with me. There it was, my own name on the inside of the cover, written in my teenage hand. My pencil underlines were still to be found, and occasional notes of appreciation in the margins -- the record of myself cheering the author on like a jazz aficionado shouting "Go!" and "Yeah!" during the sax solo, exactly what Kerouac's fondest wish had been.

This book and I were old friends. The experience of renewing our acquaintance was more than just taking in the words again, it was touching a part of my past. And it was an experience I could never have in digital form. Nor would that young woman have thought to ask what the book was about if all she had seen was the blank leatherette cover of my reader. When people see that they are more likely to ask, "What is it?" rather than "What are you reading?"

So here's to the lowly book. Though it may come to be regarded as a Dead Sea Scroll, or a cuneiform clay tablet, and though it may be on its way into oblivion, let's honor it and think fondly of it as we set it gently on the shelf of history.

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