In thinking about this week’s post I’ve realised quite a big contradiction about myself: I love books but I’m a terrible, terrible reader. It’s not that I don’t like reading, it’s just that I’ve gotten out of the habit in recent years. I could blame my iDevices – why limit yourself to a single book when you can take the whole internet to bed with you? – but the truth is that my iPad has been just as instrumental in getting me back into a good reading habit. No more of this needing two hands to keep your book open; no more having to remember which page you were up to; no more trying to keep the spine uncreased so your wife doesn’t beat you.
My answer to this dichotomy is that the pleasure you can take from books (or that I can, at least) is not solely in the reading of them. There’s more to it. Something intangible. Something that lies between the pages.
Some of my most treasured possessions are books. I have a collection of old Doctor Who novelisations (thanks to the awesome Seb Sharp) which take me back to my childhood every time I look at them. I have a handful of old Richard Stark crime novels that always remind me of a holiday in the USA during which I dedicated myself to collecting (and reading) as many of a particular imprint as I could. I have some ‘trade paperback’ editions of some Anne Rice novels which I picked up over a day in San Francisco, during which I separated myself from the rest of the family and spent my time giddily walking from bookshop to bookshop.
Like many possessions, books inevitably associate themselves with memories … and yet it’s not just about memories. I get a lot of pleasure from simply walking round bookshops (more so with secondhand bookshops for some reason). I’ve been guilty in the past of simply buying books because I loved the look and feel of them – and because they were included in a 3 for 2 deal. These books would sit proudly on my shelf but invariable end up unread. Lately I’ve managed to train myself not to buy books on a whim (and in writing this I wonder if it’s in any way connected to the drop in my reading rate?).
Of course, things are different now: the ebook is here. Having read the above you might think I’d try growing a second heart just so I can fill it with contempt for the non-physical book. As it happens quite the opposite is true.
The advent of the ebook, as well as the arrival of internet publishing channels for independent authors, has given me the chance to share my own stories with an audience for the first time. No longer am I subject to the narrow definitions of acceptance laid down by publishing houses, or subject to the whims of an editor’s taste or publishing restrictions. Now, for better or worse, I can complete a story, get it on the internet, and have people reading it almost instantly. Just a few years ago this would have been unimaginable.
This isn’t always a good thing: there are a lot of really, really bad writers out there who can now fill the virtual bookshelves with rubbish. However, for an author trying to find their voice and work out which kind of stories their potential audience want to connect with this sort of shortcut is priceless.
And yet, with convenience I can’t help thinking there’s always a price. If you’ve seen any post-apocalyptic films, particularly ones from the 1970s or thereabouts, you’ll have seen at least one where the survivors eventually learn about the world they’ve lost through the books that have survived.
Digital books won’t survive an apocalypse (unless it’s a strange one where our electricity and communications remain intact). There’ll be an entire generation of writing that will instantly disappear. I wonder if the survivors will find themselves learning about the past world through a strange combination of one-dollar Shakespeare classics and reality show biographies? No doubt some of the millions of copies of Fifty Shades will make it through and provide an invaluable sociographic insight into our current culture.
Obviously I hope this apocalypse never happens, but I do wonder what the historians of the future will make of a past where vast portions of our culture and heritage were stored on inaccessible digital media.
To cap off this typically rambling post I wanted to consider the question: what is a book?
Is it words printed on a page? No, an ebook is just as worthy of being called a book (even though we haven’t grown out of the ‘e’ distinction). Also, there are plenty of other instances of words printed on paper that aren’t books.
Is it a story? No, because our bookshops and libraries are filled with non-fiction, and some of my favourite reads of all time are non-fiction (I have a particular fondness for ‘behind the scenes’ type books, Hollywood history, and so on).
Is it prose? No, because most of us feel just as comfortable referring to children’s picture books or graphic novels (comic books) as books.
My conclusion is that a book, rather like a film, is escapism. A book will give us the chance to escape into a fictional world; into someone else’s life; into a different time. Even the blandest seeming books give us those moments where we imagine we can cook a flawless five course dinner; or fix our own car; or exercise ourselves back into fitness. Or simply to learn something we didn’t know before.
Books give us a window to somewhere else, it might not be somewhere far away, but the book is often the first step on that potential journey.
And if we don’t read we miss out on all those first steps that we could be taking.