As an infant, I was lucky enough to be possessed of a father who travelled abroad on work, and a mother who used those travels as book-shopping expeditions. She smothered me in Mr.Men and Little Miss, Grimm’s fairy tales, Dr.Suess, and others, and I grew up loving the feel of my books, with their fine-quality paper and glossy jackets. Later, as an impecunious pre-teen I discovered the joys of haggling for aged copies of much-wanted books that hid themselves under their fellows on street corners in Matunga and Fountain. I remember the joy I felt when, after months of searching, I FINALLY found Sugar Street, the third in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, at an unlikely-looking kiosk in Vashi, and my deep sadness that it’s cover was styled differently from those of the first two parts that I already owned. I remember how delighted I was to discover that Bangalore, which I shifted to when I began the wage-earning phase of my life, hosted an array of secondhand bookstores with a fantastic collection. And I remember how thrilled I was when a sagacious friend gave me a gift coupon for an online store which sold books, so that I no longer faced the irritation of visiting a store and then discovering that it did not stock my choice.
Earlier, when I was asked what my hobbies were (this question is much favored by the better-natured relatives one meets at annual family gatherings. The more idiotic ones ask which class you’re studying in or what you want to do for a living.) I would reply, ‘Reading’. But reading actually encompasses two separate pleasures, the cerebral joy of assimilating words and imagining people and places; and the physical joy of caressing a book, and perhaps owning it as well. I love reading, and I also love books. I like stacking them on bookshelves and using up valuable storage space that could have been put to more profitable use. I like the way old, old books feel, their frailty, the necessity to turn their pages with caution and delicacy and respect. I like the way new books feel, when I first crack their spines and finger the crisp edges of their pages. And I like the way certain new books become old books faster than others, through obsessive re-reading; Harry Potter, for example, or P.G.Wodehouse.
Some time back, a relative (hailing from the better-natured category, naturally) gifted me a Kindle. While I am a technophobe of the most reactionary kind, this particular gift I received with mostly welcoming feelings, determined as I was to try out the joys of e-reading for myself. The overstacked bookshelves are, after all, starting to creak.
The first book I tried reading was Alice in Wonderland – since it was available for free on Amazon, har har. I did not enjoy the experience, and told myself that to a lover of books, the intellectual pleasure of reading would always be linked to the tactile pleasure of turning pages. Soon after, however, I had to take an extended trip during which it would have been impossible to carry an armload of books – if they had not been compressed into itsy bitsy bytes and stuffed into my Kindle. John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Michael Crichton, Sherlock Holmes, all travel reading staples, fit snugly into one lightweight handheld screen. I never ran out of stuff, because if I did, I just downloaded some more – online.
There are distinct advantages to owning e-books; Saving of space. Absence of wear and tear. No chance of losing your precious book in the rickshaw coming home, which would have to happen just when you’d started on the most exciting part.(Unless, of course, you leave your e-reader in the rickshaw coming home – tough luck, that.) The perfect foil for that pesky ‘friend’ who ‘borrows’ the latest best-seller and ‘forgets’ to return it. (You know who they are.) And you needn’t wait for the mail to bring that great book that’s releasing today but has a huge backlog even on pre-order; the online version can be delivered to you in seconds!
The joys of e-books are essentially the basic miracles of the digital age – speed, convenience, security (if you take a backup, and you should) and, sometimes but not always, price – the e-book versions of books typically retail for lower than the price of the paperback/hardcover versions. And look, Ma – no trees cut!
However, practicality does not always rule the day. Perhaps to those of us who grew up with the traditional paper-and-ink versions, old habits can die hard, or not at all. Even though I own a Kindle, I restrict its contents to thrillers and such other quick reads. For more ‘serious’ stuff, I prefer to buy the fat, heavy, difficult-to-lug-around, impossible-to-stuff-in-purse physical versions. I enjoy closing them shut at night and placing them by my bedside, just one story sharing my space, physically and mentally.
There are other characteristics that books have, that make them unlikely to vanish under the tide of their superior cybernated avatars. There was a reason I didn’t like Alice in Wonderland on my Kindle, and I think it had to do with the illustrations. While e-readers do show colour images now (and colours that won’t ever fade, too) there is something in being able to touch a drawing on a page that has a visceral joy associated with it. Especially if the image is from fantasy, or whimsy; these don’t seem to jell with the cold mechanic efficiency of an e-reader. Children, I suspect, will always appreciate their first fairy stories being tangible, at least, a couple of degrees more tangible than those on screens. Of course, certain specialized kinds of children’s books such as pop-up books have their own market, and always will. Magazines, too, which might seem like ideal candidates for e-books, are in actual fact much better suited as physical beings, insofar as that they may exist in beauty parlours, doctors’ waiting rooms and cafes as pastimes.
And of course, what would one do with all those pretty bookshelves, if the books themselves were gone? While I refuse to stoop to considering their usage in home décor as an argument in favor of books’ ultimate survival vis-à-vis e-books, detractors must admit that ‘coffee-table e-reader’ just doesn’t have the same ring!