Why I Will Never Outgrow My Love for Physical Books

Books 2008

Books 2008 (Photo credit: // Denise //)

I recently recommended a book to a friend, then offered to let him borrow my copy. I half expected him to refuse, not because he wasn’t interested in the book but because he is a tech-savvy guy: I figured he would rather read it on an e-device. So I was surprised when he accepted my offer, saying, as if surprised himself, that he has read so many books on his Kindle lately that he was craving the experience of reading and feel of a paper book. I think he’ll be really pleased when he reads this one (the one on top picture below, Bess Streeter Aldrich‘s Miss Bishop). Just the texture of the cover puts me partly into the world of the story.

Books by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Books by Bess Streeter Aldrich

There is a giant push in the publishing industry, as well as a movement in modern readership, toward e-publication. And as someone who edits for an online literary journal and makes much of her living online (including one e-published short story at Smashwords.com), I am grateful for this technology.

At the same time, I still nurture that dream of some day walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on the shelf. (Or even better – seeing it purchased by an eager reader.) I cannot imagine any author not wanting this. But with the chances of landing an agent or publisher being so slim and the cost of self-publishing prohibitive for many, e-publishing is quite attractive.

When I was in the seventh grade, I was part of a small research group that researched and proposed a new kind of virtual book. It was the mid-1990s, and we didn’t even have the internet available for us to do our research, so this was quite a far-reaching idea for the time. We hoped that we would win an award – and maybe even enough grant money to create a prototype. But while I was honored to be chosen to work on such a project, the idea of the product really bothered me. Everyone else in the group was excited to create some virtual experience that would make people never want to go back to the traditional books again. I quietly kept my qualms to myself.

I doubt it was just my feelings about the project, but it never went anywhere. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the industry didn’t move forward without us. And there is a great use for e-books – don’t misread what may sound like a lack of enthusiasm on my part. I have a friend who travels all over the world and is also an avid reader. Her Kindle is her best friend. She can load eight or nine books on it for her trip and never have to worry about all that extra bulk in her luggage.

Tablets have so much going for them, and they only get more sophisticated as time goes on. Some books are only available via e-reader, and it’s much more convenient reading them on a tablet or a smartphone then having to sit at your desktop every time you want to read. I’ve purchased several books and read them this way, and what’s great is that I can read and fold laundry at the same time, not having to worry about the book flipping itself closed. If I ever end up some place with only my phone to keep me company, I have any number of public domain books available with one swipe.

So why would I ever need a physical book again? I mean, aside from wanting to publish one, of course. It would do me no good to see one on a bookstore’s shelf if people suddenly decided they didn’t want books anymore. But they still do. Even though they cost more. Even though they take up space.

I would have to argue that there is something viscerally satisfying – and I’m not talking about eating the pages. It’s something in the feel of a physical book that trumps the convenience of e-books. Especially if, like my friend, you haven’t read one in a while. It just feels good to run your fingers over the pages, to hear that rustle of paper. Sometimes the texture is fine. Sometimes the pages are thick. And when you’ve been with a book for a while, you wear it in like a good pair of shoes. You know the feel of it in your hands, and it’s not just the story you miss when it’s gone. I also like to see my progress, especially on a really thick book (my favorite kind). I feel like I’ve accomplished something as my bookmark moves from the front to the back.

Georgene's Bookmark

Georgene’s Bookmark

Oh, and bookmarks. How could I forget bookmarks? My friend Georgene, artist extraordinaire, made this one for me – isn’t it gorgeous? I confess that while some people have a shoe fetish or an obsession with jewelry, I have a thing for bookmarks. It’s best that I avoid the accessory section in general at bookstores because I’m liable to spend just as much on those little things as the books themselves. Oh wait – e-books come with bookmarks already in the program. Which is good because your kids can’t pull the bookmarks out and make you lose your spot. But then you also don’t have your friend’s art or Edward Cullen or Harry Potter looking at you every time you mark a page.

You might have many more reasons why you still keep books on your shelves – or why you continue to buy them. Or maybe you take issue with my whole argument. But if you do, I have one more thing I would like for you to consider: remember my friend and the book I’m lending him? Well, that wouldn’t be possible if another friend hadn’t bought the book for me to begin with. This, I think, has to be my favorite thing about owning actual, paper books. I love giving and receiving them as gifts. (There’s something so personal about giving a book you know will speak to someone.) I love lending them to others, and I’ve discovered so many wonderful books that I never would have known about if friends hadn’t lent them to me. My parents still have books that belonged to my dad when he was a kid, and the third generation is enjoying them now. We enjoy a person-to-person library system with no due dates, and as long as you’re careful about who you share with, it always pays off.

I am absolutely not advocating that we boycott e-books and e-readers. Just the opposite: I am grateful that we have the choice. What I am saying is that you don’t have to buy into the commercials that try to convince you that anything without an “e” in front of it is going the way of the T-Rex. After all, people still run outside, even though we have treadmills. And we bake cakes from scratch, even though we have cake mixes. We do what works for us, given our individual situations, and when a friend decides to share a book that might take up some space on your table or in your purse, it’s still an offer well-worth accepting.

And the Award for “Most Improved” Goes To. . .

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, Anne and her best friend Diana are getting ready to host an esteemed author for the afternoon, and among other worries, Diana frets about embarrassing herself by forgetting good grammar and saying “I seen.”

I recently rediscovered some of my own “I seen” moments in my own writing. While transferring all of my documents from my eight-and-a-half-year-old PC to my MacBook, I found some files that have been following me around from computer to computer since my early teens.

One story has been kicking around since I was thirteen, and although I haven’t worked on it since I was a junior in college, I still think about it from time to time. (If you read last week’s blog, it’s one of my infamous books that I wish someone else would finish writing for me.) When I was fourteen or fifteen, my computer corrupted this story’s original file. Thank goodness I’d printed some of it, but even that was only about a tenth of what I’d written and an old version, to boot. Naturally, I became depressed about not being able to replicate all that I lost. Not that any of it was great, as I rediscovered when I re-read some of it. Granted, the awfulness I am about to shame myself with is from the story’s outline, not the narrative itself. But still, I wrote it. Ready? In the second point of my outline, a character “has a car accident that strikes her in more ways than one.” I am pretty sure that I thought I was being clever with this terrible pun-slash-cliche. The only thing I can say in my favor is that I wrote it in high school, but I wish that I knew better back then.

The story itself is better, at least. I’ve always been a good speller and proofreader, and my real talent is dialogue (although dialogue tags are another matter). But there is too much exposition, too much telling bogging down the narrative. I was worried about readers seeing hairstyles and sweaters and kitchens exactly as I saw them–a common mistake for new writers. And it really did take until college for me to understand that cliches are no-nos. Here’s another little gem (from the story this time) that I can’t believe I wrote: “The world is everyone’s backyard.” Ugh. No wonder I gave up and went on to other stories.

When I took my first fiction workshop in 2002, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Naive enough to assume that I was one of the few unpublished future bestsellers just waiting to be discovered, I was knocked off my self-constructed pedestal when my first story was critiqued. I thought it was unique. Well, it was definitely different. No one really understood it, and the piece that I thought would be published in some well-known literary rag and set me down the road to stardom soon went into my own personal slush pile. I worked with it some, but once I began to see the flaws, I realized there were more problems than acceptable prose.

I was disheartened to discover that, while I was an excellent editor, my writing skills weren’t nearly as honed or appreciated. I continued to write but with more realistic expectations. The key is that I did not give up, and I published a couple stories. One of them, “Stranded,” made it into the University of North Florida curriculum for some literature classes, and I visited a couple of those classes to talk to students. I always liked that story, had fun with the ending because it doesn’t resolve in a gift-wrapped package, complete with little bow. But I always had this nagging feeling that something needed to change, that it could be better. I even thought it might have to do with the pacing, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem. And since it was already in print, there was nothing I could do about it anyway, right?

I moved on again, devouring adolescent lit in every spare second, and that’s when I discovered my true voice and style as a writer. I started and finished my first novel, then had it workshopped and critiqued by a room full of writers. It was rough, very rough (even though I’d already revised it once), but with those critiques, I started making changes that improved the manuscript. I read more novels, more advice from writers, and I kept working. I received rejection after rejection from literary agents, which made me second- and triple-guess every element in my book. Often I despaired and gave myself ultimatums: If I’m not published by such-and-such a time, I’ll just save the money and self-publish it, so I can at least show my family what I’ve been doing all these years. I could have done that at any time, but while I might have had the joy of seeing it in print, I would not have made some of the changes that have finally brought the book to life. Recently, I asked some of my original readers from years ago to read a little of my book in its current revision. The story that had a good start eight-plus years ago but still had so far to go was met with unanimous enthusiasm, encouragement, and praise, not to mention some incredulity that I have yet to find a publisher.

As for “Stranded,” which I liked but never quite felt was finished, there’s this new thing you might have heard of called e-publishing, and it’s awesome. It puts not only publishing but even formatting into the authors’ hands. Of course, it also means that there are more people than ever who are able to publish absolute crap, but the readers are ultimately the ones who decide which writers make it or not. Through the eBook distributor Smashwords, I finally reprinted “Stranded” with the changes that I wanted (but didn’t know how) to make years ago.

I’ll never stop learning. Every time I read a book that gives me the best advice I think I’ve ever read, along comes another one that delivers new revelations. I love the challenge of topping my personal best, of moving ever forward. Maybe one day I’ll pass the level of “most improved” to “most read.” (A girl can dream, right?) Until then, I’ll make sure I don’t revert to my personal “I seen” moments.