Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Two shades of grey?

I've just read a blog entry by author Max Barry. The entry is called Book Sadist and contains photographs of books literally coming apart at the seams. Max discusses the interesting distinction between the terms story and book - words we often use interchangeably. He observes that stories can be owned in ebook form, but that a certain tactile experience is absent from that form, as is the potential cumulative visual pleasure of having a shelf full of books. So far, so good.

But then Max proceeds to talk about two types of book owner. Just to be clear on this point, I must stress that Max implicitly states there are only these two extremes, describing "people who have treated books with reverence, laminating their covers, turning their pages with care, and never cracking their spines" then continuing "And there have been people like me." From a strictly logical standpoint, this doesn't claim every book owner is one of these types, but it's clear from the tone that this is what Max believes.

Max then proudly displays pictures to illustrate what a real story-lover's books look like. He says he doesn't deliberately destroy books, and I believe him. What I don't buy into is the idea that a tatty book shows that the story is loved or that a pristine one shows the opposite. (Max gives the clear impression that if you ask him to autograph your copy of his next book and it's not in tatters, he'll know you don't think much of it.)

I'd like to suggest that viewing the book-owning public as comprised of two extremes is a bit naive. Maybe there are uptight people to whom a book is merely a bookshelf decoration. And, as Max's post shows, there's at least one person incapable of reading a book several times without destroying the thing. But then there's the vast majority: Normal book lovers (in Max's terms, story lovers - far out, man!) who enjoy the stories just as much as anyone (yes, Max, including you!), yet have enough self-control to read and re-read without shredding the pages or dismantling the spine. (As an aside, one has to wonder why someone who didn't mean to read a book over and over would bother to laminate its cover. I laminate books precisely because I intend to read them a lot.)

Max's attitude is curiously at odds with his behaviour. He seems to claim the intellectual or moral high ground, valuing the meaning and emotion of a story above the mundane object which stores it. But his pride in the battle-scarred condition of his books betrays at least some degree of materialism, albeit of an unconventional form.

I just want to come back to the subject of ebooks before I sign off. While we're all busy patting ourselves on the back for valuing content over medium, Amazon is laughing all the way to the bank - or at least getting ready to. When they're old enough to appreciate them, my sons can have my favourite books. And if they don't love the stories as much as I did, they can give the books away - possibly to a charity shop, to be bought by a complete stranger who might but might not have enough money for an ereader.

But the books can only find their way into the lives of these people...

  • IF they haven't disintegrated through needless abuse. And yes, Max's books have been abused. I have books (ok, ok, stories!) I've read just as many times, and (sit down for this, Max!) loved just as much, which are still in a decent state.
  • IF they exist in physical form at all. There are many seductive arguments for buying ebooks, from tree-saving, to weight-saving. But valuing story over medium isn't one of the best. And even the (sometimes) lower cover price isn't the be-all-end-all of cost the to reading public. A book I buy for my Kindle can't be passed, via a second-hand shop or charity shop, into the hands of strangers who share my love of fiction. This is the bit Amazon and its like find so amusing. The reading public, as a whole, must buy, buy, and re-buy these books. (oops, sorry - "stories", man.) As an author, I suppose I ought to side with the corporation on this particular issue. I ought to be citing that front-matter small-print no one ever reads - the bit that says "this book shall not be lent, resold, etc". And I do love ebooks*. But I'm a story lover at heart, and story - as Max rightly says - trumps medium. That's something we seem to forget in our headlong rush to the sunny slopes of Mt. Technology. 
One thing I think Max and I share is a bewildered amusement at anyone who'd buy a book simply because it looked good on the shelf. Or, worse, so that it would make the shelf's owner look good. On an intellectual level I can understand the behaviour, but - as Max wrote of people taking care of stuff, I have to admit I don't quite get it. 

* Mostly because my weak old eyes can see 'em better! 

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