For the love of books

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If anything ever made me as happy as reading books makes my younger daughter, I would be very fortunate, indeed. School book fairs are a commercial endeavor, to be sure, but they also help reinforce a child’s love of books. And that’s a very good thing.

Keeping Winter at bay

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Today is the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who is best known for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, but who also wrote the following couplet:

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks

And all the sweet serenity of books

There’s another cold day outside, here in Chicago. Keeping warm is essential this winter, more so than any other that I can remember. But Spring is on its way, and that makes today’s chill more tolerable.

I won’t have such a nice book collection available as the one shown above, but I wanted to share the image anyway. It’s the sort of image where you can imagine a comfortable chair, and a crackling fire, and a mug of hot chocolate. A dog is curled up in a chair, and the creative legacy of years and centuries gone by awaits.

February rages on outside, but inside it’s just as cozy as can be. And Spring is only getting nearer.

Books on a shelf

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I find myself in a hotel in Kentucky for the first night of Spring break. In the lobby, along with several horse-related art works, some nicely-appointed leather chairs, and the obligatory bar/meeting space, are several shelves filled with books. It made for a nice visual, and I snapped a picture of a few shelves before inspecting some of the titles.

I happened upon one title from the publisher that I work for, dated from fifty years ago, and I considered all of the changes in the publishing industry since then. The rise of ereaders and the decline of the traditional bookstore are but two of the challenges that didn’t exist a half-century ago. The idea of putting words onto a page was taken for granted in 1963, but not anymore. Words on a screen have since come along, and things are changing as a result.

I spent a few moments paging through some of the titles, and appreciating the tactile sensation that a book can provide. Ereaders are wonderful things, but they’ll never be able to recreate that. Likewise, no electronic gadget could match the visual appeal of bound volumes sitting side-by-side on a shelf.

I’m no Luddite. I can see that the reading experience is evolving, but I’m also confident that books themselves will continue to be meaningful. To be honest, I can’t envision a world without them.

An allegiance to the heart

I’m just wading into a book called “Chicago Stories” edited by John Miller. I picked it up at an estate sale last weekend, and it’s exactly why I go to them in the first place. No matter what else is available for sale, it always starts–and usually ends–with the books. I look for history topics, books about Lincoln, baseball, and Chicago. These are the topics that interest me; they grab my interest and scratch my intellectual itch. And the Chicago Stories book seems to be exactly what I was looking for.

Reading the book’s introduction, I learned about something the writer called the Chicago Tradition (and yes, capitalization was employed for this term). The writer claims that great writers come from lots of different places, but Chicago’s voices have no parallel anywhere else. There’s certainly something that makes this city special, and trying to define it is the task of a lifetime. Fortunately, many attempts at it have been made over the years.

The Introduction to the book ends with a description of the perspective of Chicago. The city has what the writer calls “an allegiance to the heart” that comes from being at the heart of America. As a turn of a phrase, and an attempt at describing something that may appear indescribable, I like it. It speaks to me. It tells me that heart is what we all have, and need to protect in order to survive.

This city always survives its challenges: fires and floods, riots in the street, Lollapalooza. There hasn’t yet been, and there never could be, anything to cut the heart out of this place. That’s why I’ll live here for as long as I live anywhere on earth. That’s why this is home for me.

Bring on the rest of the book. I’m certainly looking forward to it now.

Crossing the digital bridge

From the time when I first read Dr. Seuss as a child, I’ve always enjoyed the experience of books: acquiring them, reading them, telling others about them, and giving them away to others. Just last week I loaned out my long-ignored but recently-read copy of W.P, Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. The printed and bound word has always been important to me.

But the world has also changed a lot in my lifetime. I can remember rotary phones, and record players, and home video games that weren’t too much more than blips on a screen. The world has shifted under my feet in many ways, and I suppose this had to happen with books, too.

Last Christmas I received an Amazon Kindle Fire as a gift. Since then the device, even though it’s technically mine, has been used by the others in my household. I stubbornly continued reading books, as I always have, until a couple of days ago. It was a moment that felt like something changed.

I was flying back from Florida to Chicago, and it’s about a two and-a-half hour flight. Not terribly long, but such that passing the time is important. John Grisham‘s Calico Joe had been loaded onto the Kindle Fire, and it had suggested several times that I should read it. I always have enjoyed Grisham’s work, and it was a book about baseball, so why not?

The experience of swiping across the screen to move onto the next page seemed strange, but I got used to it. And the story sucked me in, as Grisham’s books usually do, and dragged me along, page after page, until we landed as I was nearly finished (87% finished, to be exact). So in the air on the way back home, I felt as if I had bridged a centuries-old gap from the technology of the 15th century to the technology of the 21st century.

The next morning, I picked up the Kindle Fire again and finished off the story. And I must say that I enjoyed it a lot. But even more importantly, I felt as I did when I made my first cell phone, or received my first email. The world has now changed, and doing things exactly as I have before now seems neither practical nor desirable.

I probably will continue reading books in the traditional manner, because old habits die hard. But I can also see that the future of reading, like so many other things, has just changed, and possibly forever. Time and technology keep marching on, just as they always have.

This is different from books

In the time that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve put thousands and thousands of words together into hundreds of little word morsels. And they haven’t been–and won’t ever be–published into traditional book form, which is something I take as a good thing.

As I see it, the moment that ink meets paper is when words and ideas are forever preserved in amber. The words are immortalized on paper, yes, but they also are all that they will ever be. But something written and stored online can be revised at any time, and for any reason.

It’s rare that I don’t re-read something I’ve written and find a typo, or a word that was left out, or a thought that I didn’t flesh out as well as I wanted to. With a traditional book, those things usually get caught in the editing stages, so that when the book is assembled, the book is already at the most advanced stage possible. But once it’s published, you don’t get another bite at the apple, so to speak. The work is what it is, and thus shall it ever remain, unless your name is George Lucas.

Like many other things I’ve written, this post might one day need to be refined in some way. Since it only exists on the internet, and not in the real world, it’s no problem to go in, make some changes, and get back out. And you, my dear reader, won’t ever know (or care about) the differences.

So is this way any better than putting thoughts down into a traditional book form? That’s up to every person to answer for him or herself. But from a writing perspective, the posts that I’ve created online can live and grow like a tree, instead of gathering dust on a shelf, like the paper that they once might have been printed on. I’ll just call it a difference and leave it at that. For now, anyway.

The new Borders?

image There was a Borders store not too far from where I live in Chicago. I won’t say that I went there a lot, but I liked the fact that it was there. And now it’s gone, and I miss it.

I took this picture when I was in a Dollar store the other day. It just looked strange to see so many books piled up on top of each other, waiting for someone–anyone–to take the books off their hands.

I’m not suggesting that there’s a causal connection between Borders closing down and big stacks of books in the Dollar store. But the people who go into a bookstore are probably prepared to spend more than a dollar to buy a book. And when new, hardcover books can be had for a dollar, it puts downward pressure on the price of books everywhere.

E-readers are probably going to do to traditional publishers what digital cameras have done to Kodak, and what the internet has done to newspapers. Books won’t ever go away, but stacks of books in a dollar store can’t be a sign of good times ahead for publishers and all of the people in the industry, either.

The future of books

If I haven’t admitted this before, I love having books. I enjoy reading them, but there’s also something about surrounding yourself with lots of books. I think it makes a statement about valuing the written word. I frequently go to yard sales and book fairs, searching for old books that I can buy for a quarter or 50 cents.

This past Christmas, my wife surprised me with an Amazon Kindle Fire. She uses it much more than I do, but in theory, at least, the thing is mine. I even have a Cubs carrying case for it, and I took a picture of it when I was out on New Year’s eve. If I can carry it around without losing it or crushing it somehow, I think it will be a great thing to have.

But what does the proliferation of tablets, and e-readers, and smartphones that allow you to download and read books, mean for books in the future? For starters, it means that books costing $20 or more can now be purchased digitally for several dollars less. Which option are most readers going to choose? I know the answer to that, and you probably do, too.

Physical books, as we have known them all our lives, have been in a downward spiral for a few years, at least. I work in publishing, and there aren’t any growth opportunities in this field. Digital publishing, yes, but books themselves are moving the way of carbon paper and pagers.

But books should be different, you might say. Ever since Gutenberg and the Renaissance, people have had a kinship with their books. And I fully agree with that. However, people’s need to read will adapt to whatever form the material is presented to them. Books will always be one of those formats, of course, but digital is also coming into view as an appealing alternative.

This is all being fueled, of course, by the internet. Isn’t that how you’re reading this, after all? The internet has made photographs obsolete, has brought the Postal Service to its knees, has put many booksellers out of business, and has turned analog forms of recorded music into relics.  The diminution of the printed word–consisting of ink on paper with binding and a nice cover–is another logical step along this progression. Whether or not it’s actually “progress” is open to discussion, but it is happening, and will continue to do so.

The final frontier in this process is school textbooks. My children now lug an inordinate amount of paper to school with them each day, and a tablet that can be used to present all this material to them–and to make it come alive for them in a way that textbooks cannot–is something that almost needs to happen. As digital content changes our everyday lives, it seems foolish to require that children remain burdened–literally as well as figuratively–by these behemoths.

Once tablets become cheap enough that schools will buy them, instead of bulky textbooks that will become outdated in two years, this evolution–revolution, really–will be complete. And like smoking indoors, it will only take a small amount of time before we wonder how we ever got along any other way.