“going the way of the dinosaurs?,” books

I will be very sad if books are ever relegated to the burn-pile, as depicted in the 1966 film, Fahrenheit 451, starring Oskar Werner, Julie Christie and Cyril Cusak. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you do. (A YouTube clip is below.) 

“Fahrenheit 451” is a haunting tale of a society overtaken by a robotic mentality. Books are condemned for they encourage independent thinking, which the ruling government decides is detrimental to man’s happiness. Of course, the comparison to replacing  books with e-books is not the same, but might it be the first step toward a technologically controlled society? Might those, like myself, who prefer to read the old-fashioned way, be marginalized by the majority who can order up a book in seconds? Worse, if in the future some evil force with total technological control decides to eradicate all sources for e-books, thus destroying mankind’s history, will we find ourselves in a “Fahrenheit 451” of our own making? I jest, I think, I hope.

The following editorial article in today’s Wall Street Journal reminded me of my passion for the printed book. Rather than try to paraphrase the words of the author, Dan Newman, I’m reprinting what he’s written, verbatim.

 A KINDLE FOR CHRISTMAS? SPARE ME

I should be the perfect candidate for an e-reader: I own thousands of books, lack space for more and often schlep several heavy volumes in my bag. So when I begged my family to refrain from getting me a Kindle for Christmas, they were confounded.

At first, they thought the problem was that I wanted another model, one that could be dropped without worry, read on my winter camping trips, and never run out of power. Then they realized I was describing an old-fashioned book–paper and binding!–and I lost them again.

E-books are not only better, my family claims, but inevitable. Retail giants tend to agree. Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble and its biggest shareholder, has said that, “Digital publishing and digital book-selling will soon become the most explosive development in the history of our industry and will sweep aside those who aren’t participating.” The physical book will soon be akin to the parchment scroll.

The numbers seem to support this view. Sales of e-books have more than doubled over the last year, to $340 million so far this year from $166 million in 2009. At Amazon.com, e-books now outpace bestselling hardcover editions. So why do I doubt that I’m being left behind?

First, while growth in e-books is impressive, it’s not overwhelming. E-book sales this year will account for 8.5% of all books, a smaller share than Apple commands in the computer market even after years of growth at a similar pace. Though e-books will surely continue to grow, for now about 90% of book sales remain in print form.

Online retailers, particularly Amazon.com, work hard to promote e-books. Kindle advertisements have topped Amazon’s home page–some of the most valuable real-estate on the Internet–for nearly three years. The Web pages for print editions always include links to Kindle equivalents when possible, but the Kindle versions never link back to print forms. Amazon wants you to buy a kindle.

And it should. Kindle sales compete primarily with bestselling hardcovers–the heaviest, most heavily discounted editions that Amazon sells. The Kindle will sweep them aside, its supporters say, because e-books are portable, include useful search functions, and can retrieve new titles within minutes. This last point hardly matters to me, given that I can have physical books delivered within days and already have hundreds of unread books waiting to be cracked. While a search function is useful, it also points to a flaw in the Kindle: All the pages are alike, to the extent that there are pages at all.

I remember passages by where they are in my books–this or that detail is two-thirds of the way through, on the bottom left. That physical memory runs deep.

University of Washington Book Arts Librarian Sandra Kroupa demonstrates as much with a party trick she’s developed. I’ve seen her set down a dozen stiff-backed Little Golden Books before a group of adults. They chatted with delight as they held old copies of “Dumbo,” “Little Toot the Tugboat” and other childhood favorites. “The physical book holds meaning,” says Ms. Kroupa. “If I were to bring a modern edition of ‘Dumbo,’ it wouldn’t elicit nearly the same response.”

Print editions enable shared experiences in ways unavailable to electronic versions. I’m no snoop, but one of the first things I do when I enter a home is scan the bookshelves. As often as not, that sparks conversation about the interests of my hosts and about what they’ve read and hope to read. They invariably pull out other books, some inscribed, and hold them in their hands while we talk.

That experience simply can’t happen crouching over a hard-drive. Imagine entering a living room and saying: “Hey! Mind if I scroll through your Kindle?”

A book is more than a shell for words: It’s a box whose magic starts at its real-world dimensions. No other common item so lacks a standardized size, and that makes individual books memorable. I could tell with my eyes closed if you’ve handed me a copy of “The Great Gatsby” that isn’t mine.

I see e-books as a companion format that will always share space with printed volumes. Perhaps one day, I’ll even travel with a Kindle. 

Until then, I’m content with my hefty volume of “Don Quixote,” my tattered grade-school dictionary and my wood-cut illustrated “Moby Dick.” Maybe I’m a Luddite because I feel sorry for children who read “Good-night Moon” on a phone. And perhaps I’m a softie for hoarding my torn copy of “Huck Finn,” a gift from my grandfather, with an inscription that still makes my eyes water.

I could tell you what it says. But it’s best to read with the book held in your own hands.

Mr. Newman is a writer at work on his first novel.

Mr. Newman and I may be a dying breed, especially since we’re not products of the technological age. While I agree that print books are still very much in evidence, only time will tell if they’re here to stay. Recent generations, and those to come, have a different reference point. Hand-writing has been replaced by typing at a computer keyboard. I can’t see that our children, their children, and so on, ever reverting back to practicing their penmanship. Even I prefer to type up a letter on Word Process, than put pen to paper. And my hand-writing has suffered as a result.

I’m passionate about details, small things that make something unique. I’ve taught my daughter to decide which of 2 or 3 items to purchase, by the attention to detail each has. The words in a book are certainly its substance, but its packaging is part and parcel of its attraction. Perhaps an impoverished childhood taught me to cherish the few material things I had, whether I borrowed them or owned them. Library books were especially valuable, for they were my escape from the reality of my surroundings. So collecting them because I can now afford them, seems only natural. They are, after all, still a wonderful avenue for living outside my “box,” since I can’t afford to travel the world over, or back in time, or forward into the future, or into imaginary realms. I admit to being more discerning than Mr. Newman, for I’m sure my books don’t number in the thousands. If they did, we’d have to sell our current home for one larger.    

 I’m hoping there are many like me, one foot in the past, the other in the future. I love blogging, but I love holding a book in my hands as I settle in for the night.

for not letting this “dinosaur” go the way of the others, hugs…hugmamma.

return to venice

During a recent visit to Venice I felt a longing to return someday and spend more time, perhaps a month. Living as a local, I wanted to wander the narrow alleyways as if time were a luxury. Traveling the globe as a tourist is not my idea of experiencing the real face of a country. Doing so seems more like being on this side of the glass in an aquarium, observing underwater creatures swimming blithely through their sea world. With eyes wide, face pressed close, my imagination wanders, piercing the “barrier” separating me from them, be they natives of the sea or of the land. Momentarily, I’m one of them. Excitement lures me in, but fear of the unknown pulls me back into the comfort of my own skin. I envy those who can abandon themselves to what’s new, undeterred by the consequences. Like the “I Love Lucy” episode where she, wanting to “soak up local color” to prepare for a small part in an Italian movie, is drenched in grape juice when she wrestles with a villager in a vat of grapes. I’m up to scheming like Lucy, but lack her bravado in following through. What is it that holds me back? Is it my island mentality, older age, my husband’s antipathy for “dancing on the edge,” or my dysfunctional past? Whatever it is, I am fine living within this “moment.” But life has a way of changing things up, so I never say never.

A Thousand Days in Venice is the author’s story of her life-altering, middle-aged marriage to a Venetian. “He saw her across the Piazza San Marco and fell in love from afar. When he sees her again in a Venice cafe’ a year later, he knows it is fate. He knows little English; she, a divorced American chef, speaks only food-based Italian. Marlena thinks she is incapable of intimacy, that her heart has lost its capacity for romantic love. But within months of their first meeting, she has packed up her house in St. Louis to marry Fernando–“the stranger,” as she calls him–and live in that achingly lovely city in which they met.”

There are revealing moments in their relationship. When Fernando makes his first trip to America to see Marlena in St. Louis, she asks why the hasty visit, since she’d just arrived home a couple of days before. In response he explains that he was “…tired of waiting. I understand now about using up my time. Life is this conto, account,” said the banker in him. ‘It’s an unknown quantity of days from which one is permitted to withdraw only one precious one of them at a time. No deposits accepted. …I’ve used so many of mine to sleep. One by one, I’ve mostly waited for them to pass. It’s common enough for one to simply find a safe place to wait it all out. Every time I would begin to examine things, to think about what I felt, what I wanted, nothing touched, nothing mattered more than anything else. I’ve been lazy. Life rolled itself out and I shambled along sempre due passi indietro, always two steps behind. Fatalita, fate. Easy. No risks. Everything is someone else’s fault or merit. And so now, no more waiting,’ …”

Laughing until she cries at something he said, Fernando asks ‘And about those tears. How many times a day do you cry?’ Later Marlena’s thoughts return to his question, “Much of my crying is for joy and wonder rather than for pain. A trumpet’s waiting, a wind’s warm breath, the chink of a bell on an errant lamb, the smoke from a candle just spent, first light, twilight, firelight. Everyday beauty. I cry for how life intoxicates. And maybe just a little for how swiftly it runs.”

My daughter has said more than once that my tear ducts are intertwined with my heart-strings. My tears flow easily when she is ecstatic or unhappy, during old films, when listening to sad, or happy, news. I don’t think I cry as much as I laugh, but it probably runs a close second. During Mass yesterday, I braced myself for a hymn that always brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. “Be Not Afraid” had been a favorite of the pastor who presided over our 100-year-old church in Redding. He’d baptized our 5 month-old, walking her proudly down the aisle, showing her off to fellow parishioners.

Father Conlisk was a close family friend who dined with us regularly. During a visit I asked our toddler to go and find her father, in answer to which she readily climbed up onto the priest’s lap. One particular Christmas morning as we sat in the front pew at church, he asked her if she’d been visited by someone special. Without hesitation she showed him Dumbo the elephant, her new stuffed animal. He held it up for all to see; the congregation broke into peels of laughter.

When Father died as a result of lung cancer, I took our daughter to the funeral Mass at our small church and later, to one held in a larger church at a nearby parish. Both times I allowed her to stand just outside the pew, so she would have a better view of the proceedings. In preparation, I explained that Father Conlisk had gone to Heaven where he would be free from pain, and find happiness with God. We  followed others to the gravesite, where I showed our 5-year-old Father’s final resting place. I think she found closure because from then on, she seemed to accept his absence from our lives. Perhaps it also helped that we became good friends with the priest who replaced Father Conlisk.

So like Marlena, I tend to shed tears for “Everyday beauty…for how life intoxicates. And maybe just a little for how swiftly it runs.” What we may all have in common with the author is “this potentially destructive habit of mental record-keeping that builds, distorts, then breaks up and spreads into even the farthest flung territories of reason and consciousness. What we do is accumulate the pain, collect it like cranberry glass. We display it, stack it up into a pile. Then we stack it up into a mountain so we can climb up onto it, waiting for, demanding sympathy, salvation. ‘Hey, do you see this? Do you see how big my pain is?’ We look across at other people’s piles and measure them, shouting, ‘My pain is bigger than your pain.’ It’s all somehow like the medieval penchant for tower building. Each family demonstrated its power with the height of its own personal tower. One more layer of stone, one more layer of pain, each one a measure of power. I’d always fought to keep dismantling my pile, to sort and reject as much of the clutter as I could. Now, even more, I made myself look back straight into that which was over and done with, and that which would never be. I was determined to go to Fernando, and if there was to be some chance for us to take our story beyond this beginning, I knew I would have to go lightly. I was fairly certain the stranger’s piles would provide enough work for both of us.”

We all seem to emerge from childhood with “baggage.” Perhaps a lucky few escape, body, mind and spirit intact. But spending our adulthood living in the past, wastes what’s left of a good life. As we peel away the layers of yesterday’s disappointments, we make way for tomorrow’s possibilities. Better that we declutter, rather than hoard negative experiences simply to have someone, or something, to blame for our inability to cope or our downward spiral. The process may vary for there are probably as many paths toward resolution, as there are individuals in the world. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all. However the common denominator should be compassion and a positive attitude, toward oneself and others. We all deserve to live our best lives, going forward. Maybe when we disavow our mountains of past pain, we’ll be able to abandon our fears of the unknown, and…return to Venice. 

live our todays and tomorrows, never our yesterdays…hugmamma.