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Precious And Necessary Things

February 21, 2011

I was recently in a Barnes & Noble and bought the collected works of Frank O’Hara. I don’t buy books as often as I used to, but when I do these days, it’s usually poetry. I don’t buy books because I tend to buy more ebooks since I was given a Kindle. Let me say: I really like my Kindle. A lot. I like that I can carry around any number of options of things to read while I’m doing laundry or doing whatever. And since I publish more or less exclusively in an ebook format these days, it safe to say I’m a proponent.

But I also really like books. Not just because of the words. Yes, the words are the most important thing – which why ebooks, which are cheaper to put together, easier to distribute, and easier to carry around are making headway they are. But there’s something about the presence of books that I’ve always found … well … soothing. It’s a comfort thing. They’re more than depositories of words. They’re companions. As I type, I’m sitting at my desk upstairs, space heater running and listening to Mahler’s Symphony #1 on Pandora, and in front of me, behind the netbook screen, are the Books I Like Around Me When I Write. The authors range from Whitman to Algren to Thurber to Hunter S. Thompson to Rimbaud to Rilke, and from to Hawthorne to Céline. Bukowski and Fante. Kafka, Conrad, Ferlinghetti, Salinger and Rexroth. Twain and Steinbeck. T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and Burgess and Melville. There are a few others. Robert Lowry, the near forgotten Cincinnati writer is among them. So is Vonnegut and Márquez. These are writers who have, over the years, spoken to me and comforted me. They are the ones who continue to speak to me.

I have other books lining the floor. I won’t list those. I have more books in storage. I could tell you what books are in storage, but again, I don’t want to list them. Sometimes I want to flip through a book, only to remember that it’s in storage in Cincinnati. That’s incredibly frustrating. In the process of moving from Arizona to corn and god country, I lost some books in the mail. I mourned their loss the way I mourn the loss of people. Over time, I can replace the titles, but never the books themselves. Sometimes it still bothers me. Really.

And while I have replaced some of those titles in the form of ebooks, my relationship with them is different. My relationship with ebooks is different in general. I like my Kindle, like I like my netbook, but it doesn’t offer me the same kind of comfort as volumes of bound books and a solid, reliable typewriter. (I have a few of those and have a preference for the mechanical beasts with return arms. I would use them more, but it’s difficult to get the correct ribbons and even more problematic when they need repair.) My fondness for typers and fountain pens are one of the few nostalgias I allow myself without judgment. It’s difficult for me to find a pen I like nearly as much… all this smooth gel ink leaves me cold. I like the friction between the nib and the paper. Friction creates energy, and on some weird writerly process level, it DOES make a difference.

One of the reasons that ebooks are so popular is that, for a few exceptions that are the result of big publishers still trying to get their retail percentage, they’re cheaper than bound books. Book binding has so much overhead attached to it; and the bind isn’t even really that good. Hardly anyone sews binding anymore, except for very expensive special editions, and the glue binding popular with trade paperbacks (publishing term) stands up tolerably well… but it’s still just hot glue. Paper costs, and good paper costs even more. So does the heavy paper used in color covers. So does the ink. Ebooks are pretty easy to format, if you know what you’re doing. (I’m still learning.) You can download free shareware that will format books for Kindle, Nook, or Adobe Digital Editions.

Every once in a while I’ll hear of someone crying about the end of books as we know them. J.K. Rowling, for example, refuses to have any of her Harry Potter books published in electronic format. Good for her; she’s a billionaire and can afford to be particular. There are a few “literary” presses around that still insist on looking down their noses at ebooks… but in all honesty, they’re just being the same editorially narrow-minded and pedantic academes they’ve always been. They looked down on small presses, too, until small presses became trendy and everyone wanted to have one … kind of like when everyone wanted a Chihuahua because Paris Hilton carried one around in her high-priced bag-lady sized purse. Shit, even I wanted a small press; and for a while, I made it almost work. (The average life of a small press is 2 years. One-Legged Cow Press, RIP, lasted 3.) Now the trend is being a “publisher” instead of a small press – which means they go to Kinko or hire it out to a POD (Print On Demand) book printer. At least they get credit and their retail percentage, I guess.

I’m not actually too worried about the disappearance of books. Not yet, at any rate. The news that Borders Books sought Chapter 11 protection didn’t really bother me. They haven’t kept up; and in spite of the fact that I see no real difference between a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, or a Sony Reader except that they refuse to have a common format (.epub is a generic format created by Microsoft, but it creates problems… at least on Kindle.) these are the tedious times for e-publishing. Eventually it will all even out.

But even when that happens, I’m still not all that worried.

There was a time when books were precious things: written and illustrated by hand, stitched and bound by hand. They were precious, expensive things, and only the monied classes could have them or read them. Then Gutenberg invented the printing press and books became cheaper to manufacture, which led, over time, to the spread of literacy. And while I miss the idea of cheap paperbacks – badly made, but a book is a book and sometimes a ragged book means it’s a book that’s been read and loved a little too much – I think maybe that bound books will once again become precious things. Special editions, limited editions – all with digital copies saved on a server somewhere, of course.

And I think that maybe it’s for the best. As a writer, I want people to read my work, and, ye gods willing, maybe make a little money to keep the lights and space heater one and Dvorak going. I’m enjoying the hell out of Frank O’Hara. No word on what shelf he’ll end up on yet, though.

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