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About books. December 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a book editor, book writer, book collector, and lifelong book lover, I’m a bit confused, bemused, and downright aggravated by a number of developments that have been brought to my attention in the past week. I was sort of holding it all in until I got this morning’s DailyCandy e-mail. (DailyCandy is a service that tracks and promotes cool shopping sites and trends; check it out and sign up for e-mails for the latest online sites and specific cities, kids, etc. at www.dailycandy.com.) But really, this was too much.

Today’s DailyCandy e-mail was promoting, among other things, a website called BookSwim (www.bookswim.com). I quote: “Like Netflix for novels, the site lets you rent ($24-60 per month) unlimited classics, best sellers, and everything in between with free shipping and no late fees.” Um, gee, ever heard of the library?!! You could get the very same services minus the $24-60 monthly fee. Doh!!!

Then there’s the e-reader (Kindle, Nook, and the like). People say they like these devices because they’re portable. Um, so are laptops… and books. Our friend Susan recently told me that she knew two people who were addicted to these devices. One loved hers because she could take it with her and read during her daily bus commute, or if she were stuck somewhere, such as the stylist’s, for awhile. Also perfect circumstances for books. The other was addicted to virtual bookstore shopping, surfing the choices and then announcing to his wife that he’d so enjoyed his latest trip to the “bookstore.”

Well, how about Amazon, or Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the many other bookstores with an online presence? Or how about going to a real, brick-and-mortar bookstore and checking out the selection in person? Or, again, doing your “shopping” where it’s free—in the library? Or patronizing your local used-book store for great deals on books, many of which are out-of-print and otherwise unobtainable?

I suppose it makes sense that a generation of MP3 and iPod users, brought up on downloadable music, would naturally be drawn to downloadable movies and books. But I confess, I don’t get it. I like to hold the thing I’ve paid for in my hands, to know it’s actually mine, not some virtual piece of ephemera that could vanish at the touch of a virus or some kind of massive power failure or disruption. Paying for what is ultimately online content just goes against the grain. And I really like the idea of passing along, of sharing. If I don’t like a book, DVD, or CD, or decide that one pass-through is enough, I like to pass it along to the local used-book store or used music/movie store or library free books bin. Someone else might enjoy it in their turn.

The third development in this quartet of aggravation is the “I-don’t-read” phenomenon. Our friend Rob’s son recently confessed to me that he had never read a book. How someone could reach 22 years of age without reading even one book is amazing to me, yet there it was. He spends a lot of time online, he said. He asked me how I went about reading books. He wondered if reading books might help improve his writing. He wanted to know how many pages I read at a time. But basically, he wanted to know why I bothered.

I tried to explain how books took you out of yourself into other worlds, other times. How you learned things reading that you would never have known or known to look for. How reading stimulated the imagination in a way movies and TV never could, because when you read, you create the visuals in your own mind. More, your choices in TV and movies are so limited compared to the wide world of books, where you can choose from millions of volumes in every conceivable subject. And how, yes, reading does increase your vocabulary and improve your writing (and speaking) skills.

Rob’s son is the second person I’ve met who’s told me he’s never read a book. “I can read online, instructions and so on, but I just can’t seem to get through a book. I know I should read, I buy novels, but after a page or two I just can’t go on.” This guy is 50, very smart and successful, so I guess it’s not a generational thing as I’d been tempted to assume.

Finally, a friend told me she was concerned that reading books had never really taught her anything. She’s a voracious reader, but feared that she’d been wasting her time reading for entertainment rather than acquiring valuable life lessons. After thinking it over, she could only think of a single instance when a book had had any impact on her life.

I was flabbergasted. I feel that I have learned something from every book I’ve ever read. Some books have shaped my life’s direction; others have given me wisdom, filled my mind with wonderful scenes, phrases, and characters, helped me master a skill or learn a recipe or improve my health or identify a plant or bird or know how to give my dog first aid.

I cannot think of one book in the thousands upon thousands I’ve read that didn’t give me something to take away, in my life or imagination or dreams. This is the power and the joy and the wonder of books, their great and enduring ability to give. Like music and art, it is, after love and the beauty of creation, the greatest gift available to us as human beings.

And with books, as with music and art, you can return under different circumstances or at different times of your life and find things you didn’t see in them before. You can anticipate the delight of sharing favorite books with friends and family. You can even write them yourself. So please, don’t write them off.

            ‘Til next time,




1. Barbee' - December 30, 2010

Very good, Silence. I agree with you on every point. I don’t know the answer to why some do not read books, but the old saying comes to mind: It takes all kinds to make a world.

Thanks, Barbee’! But I can’t help but feel they don’t know what they’re missing.

2. Daphne Gould - December 30, 2010

Well I confess to being a Kindle convert. I didn’t think I’d like it but my husband got one for me a couple years ago. I love it (for everything except reference books, like gardening books). I always have the book I want when I’m waiting. I might want to read something light, or something deeper. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got it. Someone tells me they loved a book and I want to read it. I just download it then and there on my kindle. I also find it easier to read. If I don’t have my glasses or the light is low I can turn up the font size. It is lighter by far than hardback – about the weight of a paperback. And I can read easily with one hand (like when I’m in bed) without my hands getting tired. I’m a convert. And btw a computer is not at all the same. The back lit screen is tiring to the eyes, but the Kindle screen isn’t. Oh and one perk I didn’t know about when it was bought. I can get to the web (hard but not impossible). I leave it on Nextbus’s site which tells me when my bus will show up. I can check and see that I have 15 minutes and stay in the warmth until then.

Thanks so much for pointing all these benefits out, Daphne! I understand from friends that the color Nook (just out from Barnes & Noble) not only has color, but easy access to the web, texting, e-mail, and etc., so i can see how it would have even more benefits for those who’d like a one-source reading and smartphone function. I’m sure Kindle will have its own color version with lots of extras coming soon!

Daphne Gould - December 31, 2010

I’m not a fan of the color Nook since it has a back lit screen. I would find it hard to read.

Aha! Thanks for the update, Daphne!

3. alan - December 30, 2010

Can’t say why people don’t read (I’ve some thoughts, but they aren’t very nice…)

The whole ‘virtual book’ thing has me split. I can think of times when having my current reading list contained in one small package would be nice (most of the books I read aren’t available in e-reader format, so it’s a moot point, but…) But for me books are more than just paper to hold words. There is a sensuality to books. The feel of the paper, the weight, the smell, the rustle of pages, the history (old books tell a story just by existing. It’s told in margin notes, coffee rings, dog-eared corners, broken spines) I’m becoming a book hoarder. We almost lost our local library last year, and I don’t want to be without my treasures. Virtual treasure may work for the government and the economy, but not for me.

Ha!!! Thanks for injecting some much-needed humor, Alan! We’re book hoarders, too, and we also love the various bookmarks, dedications, marginalia, and other stuff we find in used books. Just looking at the handwriting is a history lesson! Let’s hope your local library remains up and running. Yikes!

4. mr_subjunctive - December 30, 2010

I’m likewise appalled and alarmed that it’s possible to get a high school education without ever actually reading a book — this doesn’t seem to bode well for the Republic (though so few things do, anymore). On the other hand, surely it’s the quality / accuracy / inspirational potential of the ideas and words that’s important, rather than the format in which they’re read?

I mean, I’m with you in my distrust of e-books. I don’t have the confidence that the infrastructure (electricity, servers, complex electronics and software) which supports them will continue to exist. As corporate creations, they’re only going to stick around for as long as they’re profitable, and if the right natural disasters happen, they might not even last that long. Even Amazon can’t protect us from satellite-frying solar flares, after all.[1] But at the same time, I haven’t done much book-reading myself in quite a while: the last two books I read were review copies I got for free, one of which I merely disliked, and the other of which was Hothouse Flower. If this is what people are publishing these days, I don’t blame the audience for looking elsewhere. I haven’t liked a new piece of fiction in, literally, years. Even authors I used to like to read have: produced stuff I can’t get into (Margaret Atwood), turned repetitive, writing the same book over and over (Douglas Coupland), disappeared from the business for long periods (Lorrie Moore), or killed themselves (David Foster Wallace, who was also producing stuff I couldn’t get into).[2]

Nonfiction and I get along better, but even there, the internet has so much more information (it’s often harder to verify, and sometimes untrue, but I’d suggest that’s also true of books), about so much more stuff, it’s better-indexed, and frequently you can track down the author and ask questions directly to boot. So it’s not like I’d want to go back to books unless forced to. I’m just not convinced yet that I won’t, at some point, be forced to.

[1] (Yet!)
[2] This is possibly a general problem I’m having with narrative at the moment, not just books. I’ve liked very few of the movies I’ve seen lately, and even the TV shows that begin with smart and interesting characters and storylines tend to, sooner or later, ruin themselves for me, usually by ignoring their own rules about how the world they inhabit operates. Notable exceptions: Moon (movie), The Wire (TV).

Excellent points as always, Mr. S.! We’ll add “Moon” to our list. Thank God for history; some of it, in both book and film form (the John Adams series, for example), remains compelling. We’re planning to see “The King’s Speech” tonight and are hoping for good things from it, as well. Otherwise, some of the best and most entertaining fiction can be found in children’s books, not to mention older books. I also love nonfiction that moves beyond all how-to to include stories, be it gardening books, cookbooks, science books, or what-have-you. And thank God for Netflix, that lets one roam the whole international field of film and TV so you’re not stuck with what’s on now. Whew! I’m so with you on the vulnerability of the infrastructure that supports e-reading and computing in general. Each morning when I turn on my computer, I give thanks to God that I still have access.

5. mr_subjunctive - December 30, 2010

P. S.: Though, now that I think about it some more, it’s not like I’ve been able to get into much current music, either. Perhaps the entertainment industry is just not that interested in me and what I want to be entertained by.

Sigh. We know the feeling!

6. Jen - December 30, 2010

I love the idea of the library but have to face the fact that I am not a very good library patron. I hate having to return or renew things on a schedule, and usually end up paying lotsa fees.

It’s funny, I have a kindle but I’m only downloading things that I’m pretty sure I won’t want to add to my permanent library. I use it mostly for work stuff.

Hi Jen! I wonder if the library thing is a matter of convenience. Ours is a 10-minute ride from here, so it’s easy to keep up. If it were 20 or 30 minutes, that might be another matter. But I have called and renewed a book on the phone so I didn’t incur late fees, and they assure me I could do it online as well…

7. Jenny C - December 30, 2010

I read a lot. I go to the library, the used book store and regular book stores. I trade books with friends and buy books for my family. But I also have become hooked to Amazon for their free books for the Kindle App for the PC. The problem is I can’t get comfortable reading on the computer. So I have been giving great thought to a Kindle. To me it’s just another way to read as many books as possible. I won’t give up the time aged way of reading, but I’m open to new ways also.

A very sensible and balanced approach, Jenny! That way you get the best of all worlds.

8. Elephant's Eye - December 31, 2010

After this conversation, what delights me is seeing pictures of nieces grandchildren on FB, with head buried in a BOOK! They read! Maybe it is a family thing? Mummy or daddy reads, so the children learn to do, not what I say, but what I do. Remember when they said books will DIE, but we won’t let them go.

Great news, Diana! Certainly our parents’ love of books and reading made readers out of us. Pass it on!!!

9. Nate - December 31, 2010

Very good article. I am in the very middle of this digital versus “analog” book war. I work in one of the large chain bookstores and we are heavily pushing the digital devices way more than the physical ones we carry in store.
I was given a Kindle for Christmas last year and I am definitely a fan. Portability is what it is all about to me. Well, that and free! I have over 500 books on my Kindle now and I bought about a dozen. So many great classics and other books that are free for a limited time makes it a no lose proposition to me.
I still read physical books but now supplement that with my Kindle books. I like how you can group the books (I’ve created a better organized library than has ever existed on my physical bookshelves).

Thanks so much for the inside view, Nate! Unfortunately, I fear that bookstores’ push to sell e-readers is a foretaste of their desire to close their brick-and-mortar stores and exist virtually instead. Let’s hope I’m wrong!!!

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