Some weeks ago I read an article by one Joe Queenan titled ‘My 6,128 Favorite Books‘. I mostly enjoyed the article – it’s lovely to read about someone with reading habits as eccentric as my own (he once tried to spend a year only reading books he thought he’d hate, I once tried to read the school library alphabetically, both goals predictably ill-fated) – but the section I’ve been thinking about since is this:
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after. [emphasis mine]
I think it’s fair to say I’m ‘engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books’, and you may not need any more evidence than my 200 books project, but in case you do:
- I taught myself to read while walking shortly after I learned to read, and always have a book in my pocket – sorry Mum, I know I gave you palpitations worrying I’d get run over
- Until I was 20 I never willingly gave away or sold or traded a book – even ones belonging to my brother which I didn’t like
- I still spend more money and far more time on buying and reading books than on any other hobby – yes my book stash is bigger than my yarn stash
So, credentials established, here’s my problem: I love ebooks. I love ebooks more than paper books, and I wish I could magically convert all my paper books into ebooks.
When my parents bought me a Kindle, it seemed to them like an obvious gift for the reasons above. At the time, K and I were sharing a flat and moving regularly, so anything which stemmed the weight of books to be boxed and carried should have been welcome.
I was skeptical. I loved books, books with covers and editions and age. Books with smells, mostly pleasant. Books on my shelf, showing visitors my erudition, books on the bedside table ripe with possibilities.
And yet, the books I have in paper form, the books I’ve loved over the years, which I’ve kept and carried, stored safe from water, fire and small children, I rarely read. Because I can only carry one around at a time. Because they’re fragile from age and wear. Because they’re usually in a different country or town or in a box in an attic or lost or leant. Because I had to give some of them away, or we’d be drowning in books, so that I know I have had copies of Lolita, The Satanic Verses and several other Big Read books but given them away, unread, because there’s only so much space for paper.
Ebooks are a salvation. I can access every single ebook I’ve every bought or been given from anywhere in the world. If my Kindle gets lost or stolen or smashed I can get a new one, use a smartphone or a laptop and the books are still there, unchanged.
I no longer have to cull my collection and cull again when we move. Books I didn’t like are as weightless as perennial favourites.
It’s all about access
Growing up as an English-language reader in Switzerland, finding books was mostly luck. Luckily, my parents had a good collection, and let me roam it at will. Luckily, they were willing to volunteer at the American Library (‘as we’re there every week’), to give me money for book sales at school, to spend precious home-country time trawling through bookshops.
But with all this wealth, there were things I missed: the second book in the What Katy Did series, the final one in the Emily Climbs series, the information that Diana Wynne Jones wrote more than three books, that Connie Willis wrote at all. Any series, however short, was liable to have holes in, even in the library. School stories, like Mallory Towers, were particularly frustrating as they’re so linear. The Trebizon series was, as far as I was concerned, only one book.
A credit card of my own and the rise of the big, online book sellers alleviated the problem but raised their own frustrations: high postage costs, treks to the Royal Mail depot and the usual risks of buying a pig in a poke.
Now, I can be in Switzerland (as I am), remember a book I read once and liked, immediately download a sample (yes, I still like it) and then blow all my mad money reading the whole 10-book series in less than a month.
So while I can’t touch or smell an ebook, while part of me misses displaying my collection (hence the blog, the G+ stream), my ebooks are still ‘books that [I] can depend on. Books that make [me] believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.’
And that’s what makes them books.