Long before I was a writer, I was a reader. I still am. I love books. Not only do I love them for the stories that dwell inside them, I also love the physical sensation of holding—no, of experiencing a book. I love the sleek covers of a new paperback, the faint crack of the spine in opening a new hardcover. I love the crisp white pages with their sharp corners, and the smell of binder’s glue.
But a recent reading of Nevil Shute’s Australian classic The Far Country reminded me of the more subtle joys of old books. This was a sixty-year-old library book, and it showed. The boards were covered with thick, coarsely woven fabric treated with something that would presumably withstand a nuclear blast. There was nothing remotely attractive about this sort of binding; it was bound with durability, not beauty, in mind. Still, there was something about it that I found appealing. Maybe it was the way it fell open in my hand—and stayed open at the same page, even when I laid it down. Maybe it was the way the once-sharp corners were rounded with wear, the edges of the once-crisp pages furred velvety soft by dozens, even hundreds, of hands. Other, newer books might be more glamorous, but there’s something comforting about old books.
In a way, every old book is a mystery, regardless of genre: what child, long since grown to adulthood, scribbled with a red crayon on the front endpaper? Who was the H. Colby who received my copy of Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow for Christmas in 1947? Was he/she pleased with the gift? What series of events transpired to move the volume from H. Colby’s bookshelf to mine?
Maybe this is why my feelings toward ebook readers are so ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see so many out-of-print books finding new life through this medium, and of course I’m delighted to receive a royalty check each month for sales of my own backlist, now available in electronic form. And yet even though I have a Kindle, I still prefer print books. Part of the problem, I believe, is the sameness of ebooks: no matter how different the subject matter, every book looks alike on my Kindle. The text appears in the same font, with the same spacing between lines, paragraphing, and all other formatting. All identical except the stories they tell.
But that, of course, is the most important part. And that, in the end, may be what will eventually make me fall in love with ebooks too. After all, my love of books had to come from somewhere, some book in my now long-forgotten childhood that made me hungry for more of that. Maybe I just haven’t yet stumbled across that story, unavailable except in electronic form, that sends me to the computer determined to clutter up my Kindle’s memory banks with more. Maybe the next electronic book I read will be the one to have me devouring ebooks like a junkie in search of his next fix.
I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
Because I love books.