For love and comfort

Okay, so, feeling a little under the weather – and I took a day off of everything except basically sitting down with a cup of herbal tea every now and then and… reading a book.

An old book, one I’ve owned for years, one I know, one I love. There are certain descriptive passages, certain lines, certain exchanges of dialogue, that I viscerally remember although I haven’t read the book in some time – it is, for those who are interested in keeping track of such things, Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Song for Arbonne”, and it is brilliant. Why is it brilliant? Because, for a book that is unabashed fantasy, it has a cast of characters who live and breathe (albeit in oddly dramatic wise sometimes) and it has a world which – well – for lack of better phraseology, EXISTS (or if it doesn’t then it damn well ought to). This book, which is unabashed fantasy, is wrapped in such a layer of fundamental *truth* that it takes my breath away every time I read it – at least once a full re-read has simply started by the act of flipping it open at random at a scene and trying to figure out how Kay DOES this – and before I know it he is DOING it and I”m a hundred pages ahead in the story line and I don’t know how I got there and I don’t want to get off that ride for any reason other than the end of the world (and it had better be imminent).

But all that, wonderful as it is, is by the way for now because straight after I had finished the book (its spine cracked with love, its pages beginning to age, its shape and weight comfortable in my hand) I went back to the computer to take a look at what had been going on in th world since I had last looked in on it and discovered a discussion on e-readers on one of my listservs. Which is the best one? What are the pros and cons? How much does it cost? What else does it do other than serve as a book reading device – and how important are these extra things?

I own a cellular phone, an antique from the days when a phone was a phone. It does JUST this – it makes calls when I need it to, period, done. No bells. No whistles. No Internet. No camera. Just. A. Phone. But these days these are almost as rare as the original black Bakelite models with an actual honest-to-goodness dial on it (when was the last time you “dialled” a number…?) And I am perfectly happy with this arrangement. If I want to take pictures I”ll take a camera with me. If I don’t have a camera I can live without photographic evidence. But the rest of the world appears to be disagreeing with me wholesale and the hottest and most covetable item out there is a “smartphone” like an iPhone, the kind that you can use as a phone or a GPS or a camera or an Internet device or possibly as a tricorder if the fancy takes you. The form and the shape of it makes it look like a very uncomfortable device to use as an actual TELEPHONE which is adapted to a human anatomy – but people manage, and hey, it can do all these other cool nifty things. And yeah, okay, occasionally it makes a phone call too. Who knew?…

We’ve gone beyond that, of course. Ebook readers these days are proliferating like mushrooms after the rains, and they’re competing with one another, and it seems like the more popular ones can do – you know – SO MUCH MORE than just letting you read a book. You can access your email. You can write on your blog. You can paint a picture.

But here’s the thing. I was feeling off, and miserable, and out of it. What did I reach for…? A *book*. The kind which I could let flip open to a favourite passage (and I knew where to look for them, in the book, on a page). I could curl up with this loved and intimate object, and sip my herbal tea, and dive into the pages and pretend I was in a different world while the rain fell outside and the cats came to curl up at my feet. I was holding… a book. I had reached for one out of a need for love and comfort,out of a need for something solid and familiar and warm. I don’t generally fall asleep reading – I know people take books to bed and read until sleep takes them but I’ve never done that, I read while I”m awake, thank you – but if I HAD fallen asleep the book would have fallen down to lie on my breast, cradled in the crook of my arm, the familiar smell of those pages and the feel of its covers under my hand helping me to calm down, to relax, to heal, to feel better.

Could I have done this with a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony, an iPad?

Perhaps. Maybe. Some people no doubt have that ability. But I find it hard to derive comfort from even the idea of doing this, of holding a screen, of tabbing down through the pages rather than turning them with my fingertips when I’m ready. Yes, I know the advantages. Yes, I know you can have an entire library in a single Kindle. But here’s the thing – I don’t read 3000 books at once. I read one. And I am more than happy to have the other 2999 of them surrounding me on bookshelves in my home. The books give my house a soul and a presence, they show the people who step through my door what kind of person I am, and they are all always there for me, just an arm’s reach away, when I want any one of them.

I don’t think I’ll be buying an e-reader of any sort soon. I have bowed to a lot of the things that make up this cyberworld I live in, and have adopted the computer for a lot of things that I would never have dreamed it was possible for a computer to do in the relatively short time that it has been a part of every modern household. But reading…? Reading I do for love and comfort. And nothing beats the healing power of a real book in my hand.

Yes, thank you, I do feel better. Tomorrow it’s back into the salt mines because there is a lot of work to do. But the medicine that healed me did not come from electrons. It was words, on paper. Love and comfort. Long live the book…

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  1. 1. green_knight

    I am one of those people who have acquired a gadget – an iPhone in my case – and I am unashamedly loving it for all the things it allows me to do. (Including the occasional phone call.)

    I am more and more wondering why I was so sceptical of e-readers, because other than reading in the bath or knowing how much story is still ahead of me (that’s a (mis-) function of the current software, not of ereading as such I’m getting the ‘curl up with’ and ‘turn pages by flicking a finger’ experiences perfectly well.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but I have too many of them, and I need to cut down on the number of things on my shelves so I can have access to the ones I love.

    The ability to get the classics that I – let’s be honest – very rarely read anyway – has already saved me a shelf’s worth of space. Really obsolete non-fiction titles without personal or historic value? Replaced by electronic information sources. (I’m at the beginning of the process.) Certain kinds of quick reads for ‘when I’m in the mood for x’? Replaced by the knowledge that I can find a book like that for free or cheap at any time of night or day; since I’m not wedded to the individual books, I am deferring the _experience_ to the e-reader. (And in truth; I try to cut down on fast food reading anyway.)

    I am looking forward to the day where all of my books are on accessible shelves; where I know that I am not lugging around books I don’t love, where my reference shelves are organised. (That, too, is something my iPhone helps with: almost the first thing I did was to create a database so I can log book reccommendations!)

    If I love a book madly I shall want a physical copy of it around, to see it, to be reminded of its existence frequently… but I can just as well see myself going ‘ooh, it’s a while since I’ve read x in the morning’ _and then spend half an hour reading it while waiting for a bus where I would *not* have brought it if it hadn’t been on my phone.

    So there.

  2. 2. Alma Alexander

    Non-fiction titles – yes, ABSOLUTELY, I can see the gadget replacing that. I can see the gadget revolutionising education, if allowed to do so – goodbye to outrageously expensive and very quickly obsolete textbooks of yesteryear, you just update/download the latest version to the gadget, you can annotate, you can index, oh absolute JOY and RELIEF.

    But reading…? No. I don’t think so. Nothing can quite replace that “book” thing for me. I don’t WANT to read fiction on a screen. it just… feels… welll… like a book of non-fiction would feel. Like homework. Like something I am reading for duty.

    For me half the pleasure of reading a good book is tactile. And no e-reader n the world can replace that.

  3. 3. Doug Hulick

    I just got a nook for my birthday a few days ago, and, slightly ironically, picked up Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest, “Under Heaven” as my first e-book. Why that title? Well, for one thing, it was a good amount cheaper as an e-book than as a hardcover. But more than that, it was a book I’ve been meaning to get, but had been putting off. This was the perfect excuse. And, I bought it off the WiFi in my house.

    So far, I’ve been enjoying the e-reader experience. The e-ink looks like paper, there’s no glare from outside lighting (sun, etc., which is why I like that format over an iPad), and, well, the words are still words. I even have a trade paper sized leather holder that is basically a book that the nook fits in. There’ve been one or two hiccups with pagination, but I’m not sure if that’s the eBook or the device yet. Time will tell.

    But the thing is, the story is still grabbing me and pulling me in just as deeply as it would with a paper edition. I find myself reading more and later than I really should (as my written word count today attests ;) . So, in that sense, except for the slight delay in starting the reader up at the beginning of the day (I leave it is “sleeping” during the day when I expect I will be picking it up here and there), it has been doing its job of conveying the story.

    That said, will I get everything in ebook format? No. There are certain series, certain authors, even certain covers, that I will simply not sacrifice to the digital gods. I still like being able to turn around and pull a book off the shelf when I want/need to; or loan it to a friend; or not worry about damaging the delivery system (book) in various circumstances. But I expect I will also like being able to more efficiently find my copy and/or search the contents of other books as well; be able to easily switch from one book to another on a whim while traveling or in a coffee shop; and, yes, being able to buy a book instantaneously from home (or when I read about it right away in Locus, or what not).

    I expect it will not be a full conversion in my case; but there will be convenience factors that make it the reading form of choice in at least some circumstances, I think.

    As for going to bookstores and browsing the shelves? I’ll never, ever give that up (although I may buy the edition electronically now and then in the store…).

  4. 4. Mac

    The e-reader thing is an odd mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s GREAT for my shoulders. It also encourages me not to skim — I’m limited to just the text in the box and my eyes don’t wander ahead as much. This has been revelatory.

    On the other hand — I can’t skim! Which is a pain when reading to study and not for pleasure — when I don’t need every page, I need to get to the important stuff that will be on the test. I want quasi Post-its and virtual highlighter pens! Possibly my bookmarking/search/find-chapter software functions are not the best. I don’t think I ever finished setting my reader up properly (I have a BeBook).

  5. 5. green_knight

    Alma,
    I thought like you until I held the iPhone in my grubby hands and now you won’t pry it out of them. Like Doug, I find that a story is a story is a story, and as long as I can curl up with it on my bed or in an armchair I don’t mind that the pages ‘turn’ by flicking a finger rather than turning a physical page – it’s the _words_ that draw me in, the *story*.

    Will I still want physical books? Of course. Stupid question.

    But in the long run, a book will have to earn its place on the shelves for me, because I intend to live for a long time yes, and my home – and my brain – are at capacity. I cannot cope with more books without assistance, and the revelation that yes, I *can* love a story even when it’s only electronic has been very, very liberating to me.

    (Doug, I wish I could go to bookstores and browse. Around here, they all carry the same stock I am not interested in.)

  6. 6. NewGuyDave

    Alma,
    I hear you loud and clear. I’ve read on my iPod Touch and my wife’s iPad. Both work great, are convenient to pull out and read when stuck in a long line at a store, but they don’t illicit the same feeling as holding a book.

    After writing, revising and critiquing all day on my netbook and all that time staring at a screen, I relax with good old-fashioned paper. Reading on a screen has always been either for school or work, even before writing. It’s never been a way to relax (except when I’m killing stuff).

    Besides, if I lose a paperback, I’m only out $10 and still have the rest of my library. Maybe someday I’ll make the swap, but some things would have to change internally first.

    Out of curiosity, is Song For Arbonne your favorite Kay book?

    NewGuyDave

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    NewGuyDave – ONE of the favourites. My all-time top dog in Kay’s oeuvre remains Tigana, but Arbonne… is special. It has, for me, a tint of sepia – as though i am looking back through time at something that once USED to be real. At our own world, a long time ago. The thing has an intrinsic truth to it that tends to leave me breathless in places sometimes.

    Kay is VERY good at that feeling.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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