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E - Book—friend Or Foe?
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E  -  Book—friend Or Foe?

My mother likes to tell the story of how I taught myself to read before I enrolled in kindergarten. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it is in the spirit of my earliest memories--I read and I read. At first it was Fairy Tales and Greek and Roman and Norse mythology—O, and the “Tom Swift” series!—and I shared every boy’s interest in books about dinosaurs, rocket ships, pirates and far-off lands.

I was often reprimanded for reading by the nightlight—‘You’ll go blind doing that!’ (I always feel a kinship with the kid in “Christmas Story” with grown-ups all saying, “You’ll shoot yer eye out, kid!”) I developed a sly maneuver where I dropped my hand at the first sound of footsteps, placing the book face-down under my bed, pulling back my hand and lying doggo. They caught on, of course, but at some point seemed to accept my bedtime reading and stopped bugging me.

As I got older, I went through the entire Katonah Village Library. Once I had finished, I became desperate for more reading material.

If it was a frothy bestseller, I devoured it almost instantly. If it was a delicate maze of twining plots and characters, I savored it, slowly, inexorably, until it was gone. If it was a technical manual, I lasered it with my eyes, blew past the chaff, and instantly assimilated the crux.

If it was history, O- History I used as a fulcrum, encircling myself with references: dictionaries atop encyclopedia volumes, related histories of nearby countries, biographies of contemporarily prominent persons, science texts of inventions germane to the era, and histories of the period by other authors. I’d wedge my mind under a corner of an historical era, and lever myself right into its midst.

I despised all books that resembled conversation: ‘memoirs’ of media icons, ‘how-to’s, ‘self-help’s, ‘what-if’s, and the dreaded ‘we-are-doomed’s.

But any book, any real book, was a magnet to my eyes. Indeed, if my eye fell upon print of any kind, it was immediately ensorcelled. If I didn’t want to keep on reading some magazine ad or shampoo label directions obsessively over and over, I had to tear my eyes away and, for me, this was a palpable tearing. A better description would be that I wrenched my mind away. But to achieve this ‘exit’ from a real book was nearly impossible. After succumbing so luxuriously to the leather cover, the proud title page, the italicized quote, those first delicate sentences, how could I turn away?

At night my eyes would droop, I would jerk awake, clinging to the last wisps of awareness to read one more paragraph, fearful of finishing my book early the next day, as this would taint the next day’s book begun. And even nearly asleep, I read and I read. The years of reading, from before my first day of school, had made me unable to see a line of type without hearing the words it spelt. Even when the type was small and my vision blurred, I could intuit the words suggested by the blobs I saw. In short, if I was conscious, I read.

My mind lived in the novels I read. The details of day-to-day life were dealt with impatiently, my only goal being to get back to my book. I was every author’s dream, a reader whose heart pounded at the protagonists’ danger or broke at the barriers to their romance. I smelled the grass of the story’s setting, tasted the juicy meat of the fable’s feast and yearned for the climax, as if the plot were a woman.

Moreover, I considered the alternatives of each story line, writing in my mind a hundred variations of each chapter read. I snuggled up to typos, the pixies of print, analyzing whether their origin lay in carelessness, digital spell-checking, ignorance, or some other cause. I spoke to the writers, applauding, admiring, impatient, or angry—I addressed books more than I spoke to people. I learned the authors’ styles, not as a critic, but as a psychoanalyst, using their words to learn about their personalities, sometimes as curious about what made them write as they did as I was eager to read what they wrote. And throughout all this, I read and read, then read some more.

I’m telling you, I was a reading fool. Bookworm? Guilty, your honor. And I gained a breadth of experience that belied my lack of travel—I know, I know, it’s not the same as actually going into the rain forest or looking up at the Eiffel Tower from a Parisian sidewalk. I’m well aware that these were all vicarious experiences—but some authors can teach one an awful lot about an awful lot of things, places, and people. Thar’s larnin’ in them thar books, pardner!

And the benefits of being a bookworm don’t stop there. I get asked an awful lot of questions because people who know me get used to asking me—I don’t always have an answer to every question, but they usually get something in answer, or at least directions on where to look for more. This is not necessarily an unalloyed benefit to me—but it did help a lot when the kids were in grade school, and when friends and neighbors asked me to tutor their kids for a Regents test or the SATs.

Speaking of drawbacks, I was once mobbed by my sixth-grade classmates, on my first day at a new school, for being caught reading the social studies book before the teacher entered the room. And when she came in, instead of yelling at them for beating me up, she turns to me and says, “Chris, I’d prefer it if you didn’t read ahead.” I wasn’t reading ahead! I was reading—that’s all I ever did. But teachers and I were always like cats and dogs.

Another benefit of being a bookworm, my sixth-grade teacher notwithstanding, was passing whatever tests I was given to see if I could skip the classes and take the course as ‘independent study’. I guess I was kind of hard on them—reading ‘ahead’ made my school experience one of listening to a lecture about stuff I’d already learned. I’m sure if I hadn’t read it all beforehand, the teachers would have done a great job of teaching me and I wouldn’t have been so bored and disruptive.

I think the best perk that bookworming brings is the sudden insight that can come from absorbing a new perspective. I got these from only a few books: “Siddhartha”, “Rabble In Arms”, “Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting”, “The Sot-Weed Factor” and a few others. After reading these (or in many cases, in the middle of reading) I would see the whole history of mankind in a new, more layered texture, or see people and their feelings suddenly become less mysterious, just an overall ‘scales falling from my eyes’ type of experience.

The consciousness-expanding experience happens quite rarely and it is not a sufficient reason to be a bookworm. However, when it does show itself--well, I suddenly look up from my book, my eyes wide, and see the entire world just the same as the last time I looked, but become filled with new perspectives and attitude adjustments.

People I once overlooked become full-fledged humans, things I was once afraid of are no longer an obstacle, the clatter of falling assumptions is matched by the shiny new-ness of the just-discovered world I lived in so long without seeing some important aspects of every thing in my being, or my existence.

The biggest drawback to my reading was the constant search for new material—if I didn’t have a goodly stack of books, I knew I’d have to go trolling in the library for ‘new arrivals’ or beg a new paperback from my parents before the week was up. The fear I felt at the thought of running dry, or of being trapped on a long train ride without a book, was of the panicked, sweaty kind—like withdrawal, almost.

And now there are E-Books. Do they have adjustable font-size that lets me read without glasses? Yes. Do they have that wonderful book smell or a leather binding? No. Will they be a great help in keeping school-kids from lugging around 30lbs. of books in their little knapsacks all day long? Yes. Will they hold whole shelves-full of books in one little device? Yes. Is it hard to find anything seriously objectionable about e-books? Yes. But do they still give me the creeps? Yes, indeed. I don’t know why. Maybe my lifetime’s experience with magnetic media makes me nervous about the durability of our libraries once they cease to house paper books. One good EMP could fry ‘English Literature’ in its entirety—then my collection of ‘real’ books will come in very handy…

But the modern library isn’t in danger of disappearing along with their books—Use of electronic book storage would simply allow Public Libraries more space in which to install more of their free, public Internet Terminals—especially important to students in low-income areas. And those magically weightless tomes will make reading way more convenient. Yes, bookstores are disappearing like dinosaurs, threatening to go the way of magazines, newspapers, CDs, and every other form of analog data storage.

It would seem inevitable that the conquest of the bound and printed Book should come to pass, that e-books, like all other things ‘e-‘, would insinuate itself into our culture virtually overnight. But what is the truth behind the paradigm? Are e-book sales failing to replace the published-books sales of the previous year, or decade?

One point to remember is that e-books are coming in on the heels of HD monitors and HD TVs. The tremendous eye-strain and fatigue of reading text on the old CRT monitors is gone—reading off a modern screen is easy, and adjustable. The E-Books offer only book-pages, not internet access—so, their only real selling point is that they’re easier to carry than a laptop and cheaper than an I-Phone—and that they use new technology to resolve the image of a page to appear, in broad daylight, as legible as an actual paper-and-ink page.

Yet, in a way, e-readers remind me of beepers—remember beepers? Before cell-phones, people clipped little ‘beepers’ to their belt or pocket and they beeped to tell you that someone was trying to call you. Then you found a phone and called back using the phone-number displayed on the beepers’ screens.

Well, the day the first cell phone went on sale, the beeper industry was gone—whoever was left with an investment in beeper manufacturers or crew-equipment beeper systems was just out of luck.

And, to me, I have to say it feels like E-Books are in a similar position (sorry, E-Book owners!) With I-phones, etc. being pocket-sized, users already have access to e-books (for sale) or the Not-For-Profit Gutenberg Project (for free). The Gutenberg Project is a venerable site that has been available for about as long as the inception of the World Wide Web itself. They offer free text downloads of every book in the English language that is old enough to be in the Public Domain. So no one ever needs to buy what are called the ‘Classics’ ever again—just pull’em off of the Gutenberg Project’s Index. And I-Pads and their ilk appear to have bigger display dimensions than e-readers—which leaves e-readers with a middling size display and about 1% of the additional functionality found on I-Phones and I-Pads.

So, the question becomes: do we want e-readers because other, color-video-oriented displays use an entirely different screen technology from the e-reader’s paper-simulation display, making them mutually exclusive? Or is it simply a fact that Reading itself, along with the Mags, and Papers, and Books, is fighting a losing battle against audio-books and Youtube videos of college-level lectures and, of course, Info-Tainment!: where literacy is a drawback!

But think about it—you don’t have to be a bookworm like me to notice that books are not very high on most people’s to-do list. And those that still enjoy reading, while devoted to a good read, will never see their numbers grow. The fiction-bestseller industry has already dumbed itself down to cast the widest possible demographic net for new readers—there’s no place else for them to go in that direction—anything less involved or less intellectual, if popular, will go directly to TV, film, and video-gamers, no reading required.

I think the primary purpose of the e-reader evolution is the conversion of both new and existing literature into a digital medium—once that is accomplished, the ‘need for a separate device’ should develop into ‘need for a new App on my existing device’. But sluggish sales of both readers and books of the genus ‘e-‘ may be indications that we are not so much tired of lugging books around as we tired of reading books. And I know from personal experience how the need to spend a forty-hour work-week staring at a monitor leaves a person with a strong desire to avoid display-screens during leisure hours. Thus digital-books may be too little improvement upon an existing analog method with an already shrinking audience.

My two cents? Some ancient papyrus scrolls survive to this day, records from a millennia-vanished civilization with far less science than we have. I don’t think the shelf-life of a thumb-drive can hold a candle to the old ways when it comes to reliable data storage. Plus a thumb-drive needs an electronic appliance—the scrolls require only eyes, literacy, and a brain.


Street Talk

C. Hughes  

I don't think the sluggish sales are an indication that people aren't reading, I think it is more that avid readers haven't picked up the technology yet. I acquired a Kindle for the OH for the holidays last year. She was pleased to have it but still sleeps with her book beside her. Eventually I'm sure she will get the bug for it but up until now it's still too much work for her. I saw your list of Authors and have to say that I've read all of them too. Many days I've been bleary eyed in the morning because I just couldn't put it down. Hope Anne McAffery is on your list. She was a master. Unfortunately she passed in 2011.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Dragonriders rule, C. Hughes! She will be missed. I also enjoy MZ Bradley, Sherri S. Tepper, Connie Willis, and Ursula Le Guin. And I wouldn't be surprised if your point is a fact--like Apple's PCs, once something is used in public schools it becomes a fact of life--perhaps this innovation requires a generation to take hold.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

I share your love for books Chris. I think they will survive, and I also think there is a place for e books. What I am waiting for is that new spray that's labeled "Old Book Smell"

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Now there's a business-empire in waiting! Also, leather jackets for e-readers, special shelves for e-books (what are they stored on anyway, thumb-drives, maybe?) or e-books that come with a dustjacket that fits on the outside of the reader--so other people can see what you're reading--so many gadgets to come... thanks, Shawn

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
Lemuel  

Wow, you are a wide reader Christopher and thank you for revealing your younger years. And yes you may be right there in saying that bookstores are disappearing like dinosaurs because I've seen a lot of bookstores closing because of the e-book phenomenon. But as for me printed books and e-books are still equally important.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Christopher, Thanks! I enjoy reading, too. Enjoyed hearing of you in your younger years, "Consuming!" all the books. I don't think books will go away. I know I'm in the minority on that! I do think people who like to read will have their own libraries of favorites. blessings, Cynthia

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Thanks, Cynthia Ann. Yes, they get my paper books when the pry them from my cold, dead hands! And there is something about a book that goes beyond reading the characters, words, paragraphs, and chapters--I doubt they'll be disappearing in our lifetimes.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

They'll become more precious! My opinion:-) You'll be leaving them in your will by then.

  
  about 1 decade ago

I found your article enthralling! I remember my sister reading at night by the light on her electric blanket. She would hold the control box close to the page and move it along the words. I'm sure I fell asleep just watching her. We both loved books but the only difference is that I can close most of them anytime. However, when I'm reading a good book it comes with me everywhere. Sleeps by my bed, watches me eat breakfast, takes the car journeys by my side. Books are good friends to have around!

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

That's so true, Heather--I forgot to put in anything about the many times 'having a book in my hands' made all the difference. Your poor sis! At least I had a bare bulb shining down from the hallway outside the bedroom door. "She'll go blind doing that!" (hoho)

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

lol... she was probably told that but has made it to 45 without glasses. Perhaps eye strain actually strengthens your muscles! We should all read in the dark for half an hour a day! lol

  
  about 1 decade ago

My love of reading only started later in life when bored sit in the bush on the Rhodesian Boarder, however since then I read daily and like you have trouble putting it down, to the odd occasion when I'm not prepared to wait for tomorrow to complete a book I will wash my face with cold water or any other like exercise to wake myself to continue. I arrived home yesterday late after a 400 km home bound trip, opened the laptop to discover 98 emails from SA mostly new articles, I told the wife I was too tired to handle it last night but was going to read one or two. I read the lot before crawling to bed shot beyond recognition. The morn the wife wanted to know how I did, she said she had expected I would read them all as I've now got an excuse to read, and that I have, all the wonderful articles of so many differing and diverse authors. However I say just one thing I hope books never disappear, there is nothing like the aroma of a new book, and to actually have to turn a page by hand marvelous.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Hear, hear, Rob! --Books Forever. At one point in high school, I went through a 'complete works' phase--I did Dickens, Thackeray, Fleming, Mitchener, Chaucer, Eliot, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Le Guin, Dowling, and some others. So, whenever I would hear someone say that they had never read anything by, say, John Barth, I would think, "You're SO lucky you still have that waiting for you!"

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

I recently went for a stroll through Gen Jannie Smuts historically preserved house (museum) and his library, although it is impossible to get to the books, is a room full of fascinating titles and authors, some even hand bound. The titles and authors I wont cover here but this I can tell you they must be worth millions. On exiting the museum I inquired at the desk if they had placed a value on the books, The answer astounded me, "No, they are all old and second hand. Who would know how to value them?"

  
  about 1 decade ago

It's sad but true--a book in any condition is rarely worth more than it's purchase price--and in the case of used books, the vast majority are considered more of a 'storage problem' than a 'collection'. I do have one or two collectibles but, there too, their value rarely exceeds the purchase price --but there are a few special, priceless books--I never pay them any mind--it's not like I'm gonna buy any.

  
  about 1 decade ago

Once again, Christopher, you draw a comment from me when I would rather keep quiet. I strongly believe that every paper book should come with a micro-SD (a little bitty whatever chip) having both the e-book and the audio book included. I have always been an avid reader, very similar to how you describe yourself. I read every book in our library; I wore out cereal boxes reading them over and over while eating breakfast and even resorted to canned vegetable labels when there was nothing new to read. And now I want to *touch it (paper and multitudes of bookmarks that I can flip to), *see it (e-book with large print enabled and electronic search for words that might help me re-find that point that the author so brilliantly made), and *hear it (because at times it helps me absorb more knowledge or maybe different points by hearing it in a different way than I have already heard it inside my head). Yes, I have considered joining RA (Readers Anonymous) because I have taken a book with me to work after reading all night and told them not to bother me until I finished it. And then I clocked in after I finished it. What can I say; I want my reading experience to expand in every way that adds to my experience of what the author has been so kind as to share. I guess I will shut up now… :-)

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

I'm gratified, Sherry--you shouldn't repress yourself any more than decency and the law allows--and I enjoy your comments a lot, so no worries. I especially like your idea about the digital 'insert' that should come with all printed books! I've often felt that many books should come with their own 'sound track', giving the same ambiance as that in which the author dreamed it up and wrote it. I'm pretty good at DJ-ing my reads (something I highly recommend) but I'd be glad to hear what the author's tastes were, at the time of the story's creation. And I think Readers Anon should disband--the avid bluenose reader is an endangered species!

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Oh, yes, Christopher, sound track option... I like that too. I will add that to my request to the publishers. My daughter, who is in the Extreme Reader club (if we get around to starting it) said to be sure to mention that she loves her eReader for the dictionary look up for definition and pronunciation by tapping on the word. She loves learning new words and saying them correctly.

  
  about 1 decade ago

That does sound tempting! For certain authors, tap-look-up would be a definite plus, like Pynchon or Wallace...

  
  about 1 decade ago
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