Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What would Gutenberg say?

When we were searching for a house to buy a number of years ago, I was struck by how many homes we visited that were devoid of books. We'd walk from room to room and the only books on display, if any, were exactly that -- displays. Coffee table books designed to instill a sense of taste and refinement, a few works of "literature" artfully propped on a shelf here and there, perhaps a glossy travel book to impart a world traveler's panache to a common split ranch dwelling, but never shelves of books lovingly read and speaking of journeys of the mind or the laughter of children.

Of course, realtors point to books as one of the things that "must go" when preparing to sell a house. "Remove the clutter" they say. "Let people see the walls." But walking around those houses, I never really believed that they'd been full of books to begin with, and that was just so utterly foreign to me. Books give our home character. Well, books and the interior walls that look like they were painted for a kindergarten class, all primary colors and welcoming hues. If we ever want to sell this house, we'll have to start preparing months in advance to have enough time to pack up the books and paint every wall a realtor-friendly off-white.

I grew up around books as did my wife. Trips to the bookstore were and still are a wonderful experience. I love the feeling of walking out of the store or the library with a new book in hand just aching to be read. Our home is full of books. Every room has bookshelves -- classic fiction, art books, poetry, and travel writing in the living room; cookbooks and the "to be read" shelves in the kitchen; chick lit and my history books in the guest room; stacks of mysteries in the bedroom; and sci-fi and fantasy filling a wall in our home office/entertainment room. The children of Gutenberg and his movable type bring us no end of entertainment and fascination.

Our basement is full of boxes of books that we've read and don't have room for or read and don't need to keep but haven't gotten around to donating. At a yard sale two years ago, we sold a number of books and I took the rest to the local library for its fundraising drive. I asked for a donation form (tax deduction, you know) and the librarian didn't quite know what to say when she inquired as to the number of books I was dropping off and I replied "350".

I treat my books like children. When I'm done reading a new book, it looks pristine, no creases on the spine, no dog-eared pages. It's not that I'm anal about it. It's an unconscious thing -- I simply treat my books with care and love and want them to last. It's only when I start to nod off late at night and the book falls to the floor that I occasionally inflict a ding or two.

I almost always have two or three books going at once...the heavy hardback from the library that's ideal for reading at the kitchen table, one fun paperback that can slide into a pocket in my briefcase, perhaps another by my bedside table. I revel in the feel of pages turning and the progression from page 1 to whatever the end brings.

The drawback is that I read too fast. I want to find out what happens. I lose myself in my books and zoom through them. When "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was delivered into my hands I tore through its 760-page length between breakfast and mid-afternoon. Of course the joy of the story was then followed by hours of sitting around itching to talk to someone else who'd also finished it. At that rate, the library became a financial necessity -- I can't possibly afford to buy enough new books to keep up with my reading habits. Even so, I can't imagine living without my books.

And that's why I'm so surprised that I enjoy my new Kindle as much as I do. A generous gift from my parents and siblings for my 40th birthday (albeit delivered with belated birthday pomp 5 weeks after the fact due to my grandmother's death), the electronic book reader offers an appealing blend of gadgetry and literature. However, even with that in mind, I still was unsure about it. How would it feel to read a book with no pages? Could I stand to read page after page on screen? Sure, I read tons of stuff on my computer for work and entertainment but not novels. Could I lose myself in a Kindle book as easily and as completely as I could in a bound collection of printed pages?

Much to my wallet's dismay and Amazon's delight, the answer is "yeah, it's pretty close." Sure it's different clicking a button to turn a page and a bit disconcerting to not see page numbers but instead the percentage of the book you've read but the text is pleasantly crisp and print-like. After a quick download, I cruised through the new Kathy Reichs mystery in roughly the same amount of time I would have expected if the 460-some odd pages of the dead-tree version had been in my hands instead. I was able to focus on the words and not be distracted by the vehicle by which the words were presented to me. After a lengthy stretch of reading, my hand still cramped but this time from the weight of the Kindle rather than the awkward position of holding a paperback open in one hand. In all honesty, I am also thrilled at the prospect of not having to stuff multiple books into my bags the next time I hit the road on a business trip or vacation. Best of all, the clicking of the Next Page/Previous Page buttons is quiet enough that it doesn't disturb my wife when she dozes off as I continue to read.

Gadget fun and convenience aside, the Kindle will never completely replace my beloved print books, in part because Kindle books aren't cheap and there's no lending library for e-books (yet). A new book by one of our favorite mystery writers is due to be delivered Island Books, my favorite independent bookseller, in the next day or two and I'm allowing myself the luxury of splurging on the hardcover edition. It's a rare author for whom I'll do that but no electronic book reader will ever match the pleasure of walking into the store, greeting Judy and Molly and the rest of the staff and then the thrill of cracking open that brand-new novel and delving into its pages once I get home. Plus, the book will be a bit more tolerant when I fall asleep and it tumbles from my hand to the floor. Of course, a library of Kindle books will be easier to hide if we ever decide to sell the house.

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