What would have Gutenberg thought of Kindle books? Insubstantial books weightless as air you can read only on a slim handheld computer screen. Books you can’t open, shut, or leaf through with your hands, which you can’t underline or jot notes on, which won’t rest on your tummy when you curl up in bed. Books, which never went through a printing, press, whose galleys were not marked up by proofreaders for corrections by printers.
I remember my rapture at my first sight of a Kindle when Amazon was giving away classics for free. You only had to click, and the collected works of Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Kipling and other famous writers materialized out of thin air on the Kindle screen, courtesy WhisperNet. It seemed miraculous, whole books landing on the Kindle within minutes. The hiccup came later, when navigating the books. Some of them didn’t even have a proper table of contents.
I love books, both the paper and the paperless kind, and, while Amazon is great, there’s nothing in the world like a good public library and a well-stocked bookshop. The “Look Inside” previews on Amazon can’t compare with browsing through a book, turning to any page you like, at a bookshop or a library.
Book lovers, I guess, are platform-agnostic and will devour an epub with as much relish as a paperback if the book is any good. I will. The Twitter stream hashtagged #WorldBookDay celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday yesterday did not seem to favour one over the other, extolling books per se, not their formats. We are catholic, eclectic — book lovers — consumed with the joy of reading, partial to no particular format as long it’s in print, real or virtual.
Even in the biggest markets, e-books are still only a fraction of the overall sales — 23 per cent of $35 billion in the US and 18 per cent of $5 billion in the UK, Forbes reported in March.
Gutenberg would have smiled, I think, at the e-books mimicking printed books: the e-books on screen look no different from the printed variety. Even the typefaces look similar.
I grew up on paperbacks, Penguins mostly, and remember the thrill of seeing The Mersey Sound, number 10 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, the first Penguin with photos on the cover, published in the 1960s.
Printed books can be beautiful. The lavishly illustrated Larousse encyclopaedias and the Usborne children’s encyclopaedias were a joy to behold. Even plain type without illustrations can be beautiful, like the cover of the style guide, Plain Words, revised and updated by Rebecca Gowers.
Books like this are what I like best, just words on a page: they have a minimalist charm. Lavishly illustrated coffee-table books are great, but nothing beats just words on a page set in elegant type, redeemed by the writer’s talent and the printer’s skill. They are the books that let the imagination roam. Where the writer etches pen portraits for you to see the characters and the scenes in your mind’s eye.
I just finished reading James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mystery, Creole Belle, in paperback. Burke conjured a whole world with words alone, without pictures. Here he is describing Robicheaux’s friend, Clete, walking in New Orleans:
Clete walked down the street in the shade of the buildings, the scrolled-iron balconies sagging in the middle with the weight of potted roses and bougainvillea and chrysanthemums and geraniums, the wind smelling of night damp and bruised spearmint, the leaves of the philodendron and caladium in the courtyards threaded with humidity that looked like quicksilver in the shadows.
The writing is so vivid you don’t need anything more. The writer transports the reader to his world with words. So there I was down in Louisiana, hearing strains of Blue Bayou in my mind.
That’s what good books do, taking you into another world. And good writers can do it with words alone. Is there any magic greater than that?