Ostensibly a tongue-in-cheek post about what to do with your books once you have an e-book reader, 25 Things to Do With You Books When You Get a Kindle is really just an excuse to compile pictures of some interesting things to do with old books. I want to learn to carve hidey-holes in books. Neatly.
In the course of reviewing a new book of book art, Jules Siegel asks an interesting question: the pieces represented by the volume are art…but are they really books?
The idea of the book has always been one that is more complex than it seems even if the overwhelmingly popular conception remains the codex that people immediately think of when they hear the word “book.”
Ebooks, whether a misnomer or not, are an intensified interrogation of the idea of book form. I’m convinced that traditional books will neither last as long as optimistic book lovers hope or doomsayers predict. But no matter the time frame involved, books as works of art will continue to flourish and, I hope, continue to push the boundaries of our understanding of this essential idea and the various forms in which that idea can be expressed.
[Work: Birdbrain by Margaret Couch Cogswell, 2009. Photograph: Steve Mann]
Jonathan Franzen, in the course of slagging on users of current technology (“consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology”) and that “serious readers” aren’t conned by those dastardly ebooks, writes:
“The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?
“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing–that’s reassuring.
“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
I don’t think it does printed book supporters’ cause (among whom I count myself) to implicitly suggest that they are engaged in a zero-sum debate with e-book supporters (among whom I also count myself).
The technical fluidity of digital text is, as far as practical concerns go, a rather distant outlier. I suppose it is possible in some cases to hack into and modify digital books in such a way that those who already own them are affected, but the same argument can be made against any digital information that either resides on or is distributed from, the “cloud” or on remote servers somewhere. So, by that token web sites and email are problematic in the same way ebooks are…i.e. not really problematic at all.
The (significant) exception is the ability for the vendors of a book to essentially delete the item you have purchased from your virtual library. Amazon has done this before in the case of (perhaps accidentally) pirated books put up for sale on its Kindle platform. When they became aware that Orwell’s Animal Farm and (ironically) 1984 had been made available, they not only made the books unavailable for purchase, but they reached out and deleted it from everyone’s Kindles. I believe they’ve done something similar a few times when a publisher has decided to retract a book. Everyone received a refund, but the potential hazard is obvious.
This really points to a much larger problem in our digital age–the issue of formats and longevity in a historical timeframe. It’s easy to copy digital materials, but ultimately that material needs to be stored somewhere–and existing on random peoples’ hard drives is not enough. And many work in ebook form isn’t portable…if a format dies with the device, whether for technological or business reasons, it will be a real problem if the works that have been encoded for it die with it.
But the feeling that something in digital form could be subject to change is, like the simple aesthetic affinity for words printed on paper, a wholly individual and–for the sake of argument at least–irrational quirk. Which doesn’t make either any less real: I love paper books and won’t give them up until, if I live long enough, I am forced to. But I recognize that this is my peccadillo and concerns the form, not the words.
I know this because I have also grown to love ebooks for reasons related to their form, particularly that they pack into a very small physical container and are searchable. This makes ebooks particularly suitable, for me, for reference and academic works, while their reader is also great for periodicals.
It’s no different than music. Through A/B testing I realized that I am not one of the exceedingly few with “golden ears,” so a decent compression in digital format is for me, like the vast majority of listeners, indistinguishable from the CD or DVD source (many more people believe they can hear the difference, but it is usually psychological). I still love music, but my love isn’t conditional based on their form–LP, cassette, CD, MP3–nor does it make any sense to me that “serious listeners” would eschew the modern form. If anything, most music enthusiasts I know are deeply into–and benefit from the expanded accessibility of–digital music formats.
The scroll to the codex to the ebook…it’s a sequence that will inevitably alienate some of those attached to the form of things, the way someone with an eye for design may love the form of a particular chair, but in neither case should the form be mistaken for the function and the information, whether plowing through a digital book or resting comfortably in an ugly recliner.
The Book Tree (book porn for book lovers, collectors, and accumulators…)
This list makes me sound like I’m constantly leafing through books damp with my hot tears. In my defense, I’ve read more books than most people. And I can sometimes be a crybaby.
[notes: In no particular order. I'm not including poetry in this list, whether I encountered the poem in a book or not.]
- A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Read it twice, sobbed like a baby both times.
- The Return of the King (J. R. R. Tolkien). I’ve read the “trilogy” (scare quotes because I’m nerdy enough to know that Tolkien didn’t necessarily intend that the books be divided into the three volumes that we commonly see) many times and I always cry at the end… and I mean the very end, as in the appendices where we hear about Frodo heading West with the last of the Elves, leaving Sam behind…
- Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (David Foster Wallace). Profound and excruciating… and this was before Wallace’s suicide.
- Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut). Unlike little Billy who, even as a newborn, doesn’t cry for a good part of the novel, I sure did. As the song goes that prefaces the chapter: “The cattle are lowing, / The Baby awakes. / But the little Lord Jesus / No crying he makes.”
- Cathedral (Raymond Carver). “A Small Good Thing” gets me every time.
- The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein). I’m still not sure what to make of the boy or the tree, but between the “old tree stump” being a “good place for sitting and resting” and the way the Ents in the Lord of the Rings resonated with me as a child, what else could I do but blubber?
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). Come on… Tom Robinson getting shot? Poor Boo Radley?
- Little Women (Louisa May Alcott). If you don’t tear up a little when Beth dies, you might be an alien. Little Men never really did anything for me, however.
- A Separate Peace (John Knowles). I wrote about A Separate Peace last year…
- The Road (Cormac McCarthy). One of a very few books that prompted real despair for humanity rather than sadness for a particular person. Really a series of sometimes brutal prose poems, I’ve forced myself to believe in the happiest interpretation of the ambiguous ending… otherwise I might slit my wrists.
- Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck). Somewhere, I secretly hope Lennie really is living off “the fatta’ the lan’” and that George finally worked up a stake. “Secretly,” because I don’t believe in an afterlife and these are fictional characters anyway. And yet I still hope.
- Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls). I barely remember anything about this book except how sad it made me. I think I read it when I was eight or so.
- Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White). Another book that made me cry a few times when I was quite young, though I remember the plot well. I read once that there is a recording of White reading his tale, which I’d love to listen to. By myself.
- The Great Gatsby (F. John Fitzgerald). It’s not Gatsby’s death that gets me, but his lonely funeral.
- Trilobites and Other Stories (Breece D’J Pancake). The title story and “Time and Again” punched me in the gut. I’ve never forgotten the last lines of the former: “I walk, but I’m not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.” It’s easy to see–thematically and stylistically–why Pancake and Carver are touchstones in my understanding of fiction. But probably just as influential was Brian Reid, the graduate student who introduced me to both when I was a college Freshman in true “you’ve got to read this” fashion.
- Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card). Knowing what I know now about Card, I can no longer bring myself to read his work… and he seems to have made quite a living repeating the same story over and over again. But what a story! The “twist” has almost become a cliché now; I imagine modern readers may guess what is happening before the whole thing is revealed, I was completely surprised. In one of those strange conjunctions that can happen with characters, I always picture Ender as an Owen Meany-like character, though I don’t think there’s any textual evidence for doing so.
- The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank). Nothing one can say, is there? I will say that I find the efforts to “debunk” the Frank myths pointless and shrivel-hearted.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon). I don’t remember why or what part of the novel did it!
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera). Kundera’s novel tickles, prods, pokes, and evokes pretty much every emotion.
- A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens). “It’s a far, far better thing,” — yeah, you get it. I’m glad this was required reading when I was a young teen, but it should also be required reading for everyone at about 30.
- Romeo and Juliet & Hamlet (William Shakespeare). I’m rolling these together because I can. Romeo and Juliet stirred emotions in me that I couldn’t even begin to understand when I was barely pubescent… and don’t necessarily understand all that well now. Hamlet brought me to tears again just last year, making me a spectacle in the coffee shop where I was reading. I cry every time I read Hamlet, each time in a different place and for a different reason.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time (Mark Haddon). Not a book I went into expecting tears, particularly since it is a tale told from the perspective of a youth (Christopher) with something like Asperger Syndrome. I can’t decide if the tears come from knowing so much that Christopher doesn’t–and can’t– or from how much his perspective demonstrates that we don’t know.
- Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov). Already a generally misunderstood novel (between the puritanical decrying what they’ve never read and teenage boys pawing the pages looking for the forbidden sex scene), the sadness of Lolita only really became apparent to me the third time I read it. I first had to come to terms with the ostensible coldness of Nabokov’s incredibly precise language, which creates high-resolution novel that my mental eyes had to adjust to.
- Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Love as sickness and plague. Or is it love as the truest thing we can experience? Or both? Or none? Is it real or it Memorex?
- Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes). I once fancied myself similar to brilliant Charlie, but now identify more with slow Charlie (the first version who hasn’t “benefited” from his time of being brilliant).
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie). You’ll laugh, cry, marvel at Alexie’s skill in depicting Junior (and Rowdy) living a life many of us don’t even bother to imagine.
- Night (Elie Wiesel). Children, cattle cars, death camps, gas chambers… what else could I do? Which is why I don’t often indulge my tendency toward sadness and melancholy by reading this kind of book, including the other novels in the trilogy of which Night is just the first.
- The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Poor Sandoz… it’s a bit ironic that it takes encountering an alien race to get this close to a central aspect of the human condition: our struggle with faith and the loss of faith. Or maybe it makes perfect sense. However, avoid the sequel to this book at all costs.
Notes on the reading & crying game:
I’ve actually refused to read The Book Thief because everyone I know who has read it has cried like a baby. Another book I’ve avoided that nearly everyone calls a tear-jerker: The Time Traveler’s Wife. I won’t read Judi Picoult for various reasons, number one being that she appears to write with the sole goal of making her readers cry. Not interested.
For some time I was obsessed by apocalyptic sci-fi, particularly of the “last or very-near-the-last person on Earth” variety… but none of those books made me cry, perhaps because I always thought it would be awesome to be the last man on Earth.
In 1983–I was 13–they aired the television movie The Day After. I don’t remember reacting that strongly while we watched it… but I remember standing outside during lunch recess at school the next day and suddenly breaking down crying, thinking “why even bother with all of this when it’s going to end anyway?” I couldn’t explain to anyone why I was so upset. I couldn’t get my mouth around any fitting words. But I remember every detail of that moment, the friends who were around me, the school yard, the teacher’s face, the cracked pavement on the sidewalk… and while Charlotte’s Web is the first book I remember making me cry, the first writing that made me cry, sob, and truly lose it to despair that way was the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley-Hopkins, which I read a few months later. Hopkins’ poem made me feel as I had when I contemplated–in my own juvenile way–the end of the world, but even more intensely. I was inconsolable. That was the moment I understood that words and writing had a power beyond anything I’d imagined… despite the fact that I’d already turned hard to books and reading as my way of escaping a reality I had very little love for.
The old cliché “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” is rarely true (for me) with books. In part because I find so few books funny, though many claim to be. Books that made me laugh and cry: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.