Sunday, March 06, 2011

Illuminated Manuscripts: The Survival of Print

I dreamed I was reading a book last night.

I mean, an actual book, with creamy linen pages and some gorgeous type-face (not a font!) -- Century Schoolbook? Garamond? -- inked deeply into the grain. The cracked leather cover and the silk endpapers made me think of some other lifetime, some other world, but the smell of the hand-stitched binding was straight out of my childhood: old summer houses on rainy August afternoons. The book was Huckleberry Finn. After reading an essay discussing Twain’s masterpiece on the Numero Cinq website the day before, I had downloaded a copy to my Nook, to refresh my memory. Just ninety nine cents! But in my dream it was an actual tome I was reading. I liked the weight of it on my chest, I liked the rough edges (I had to cut them myself). I liked the act of turning each page, the rustle of the paper in the quiet room. It was like dreaming about a lost lover. I woke up with intense feelings of nostalgia and loss.

I’ve definitely been reading e-books for too long. And it’s only been six months.

Perhaps my dream had another source: my daughter Caity called me yesterday. I gave her a Nook for Christmas, loaded with Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, among other books. I had bought the novel -- about a Princeton admission officer whose child, given up for adoption, is applying to the school – and gave it away to one of my mother’s friends, who was on-island for Mom’s 90th birthday celebration. I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and kept reading: a win-win … for me, for my Mom’s friend, and – most importantly -- for Ms. Korelitz and her publisher. Caity is reading the book now, and wants to share it with one of her friends. She’s frustrated. You can share a book on an e-reader, if your friend happens to have a compatible e-reader (not a Kobo or a Sony, in this case) … but it’s not the same. I’ve read articles recently mourning the death of the book, stalwart of western culture since Guttenberg, imagining worst-case scenarios where whole libraries could be deleted from internet servers, never to be seen again. Those paranoid fantasies seemed a little far-fetched, but I wasn’t sure why.

Now I understand.

Publishing has always been sustained by people who love books, That seems obvious, but there’s a whole population of book consumers who care only for story, for the what-happens-next, chomp-chomp, pac-man consumption of plot. I read the books written for that audience – okay, fine, I am that audience. But I don’t need the novels of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, and Stephen Hunter (to name the elite), physical slabs of paper and glue and cardboard, cluttering up my house. Their books are fun, but let’s face it -- ultimately, they’re disposable. The Kindle and Nook, the Kobo and iPad will save many trees, as thriller consumers switch to digital reading machines.

But there are other books, novels written for people who love sentences and paragraphs, characters and settings, every bit as much as the enjoy the comfortable machinery of plot. Books like Huckleberry Finn, and books like Admission. I wasn’t sure what to tell Caity about her e-book lending problem, but thinking about a similar moment in my own life clarified things for me. I loaned out my hardcover copy of The Short History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier to my sister-in-law on the same day that I downloaded Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination onto my Nook. It was a seemingly trivial coincidence, and it sparked a minor epiphany. I realized that I would probably love The Illumination as much as I had loved the last novel, as much as I loved Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Which I just finished reading on my Kindle), and because I loved those books I would always want to possess them physically, as I had possessed Twain’s book in my dream, and watch their pages oxydize over time, and stare at them on my shelves, and pull them down to look up some line for an essay or an argument, and lend them out to my friends, without permission from anyone, including

Book lovers love the precious objects, the hand-made artifacts themselves. That’s what will rescue and preserve realm of print. I will buy copies of the books I love just to hold them in my hand, and so will my daughter and so will all the millions of people just like us who have kept the sublime fetish of the physical book alive since Celtic monks created the first illuminated a manuscript, twelve hundred years ago.

The best part? It’s a capitalist dream of avarice – people buying more books, not less, enriching writers and publishers and flooding the world with text, with images and characters and situations evoked by unique sensibilities, in every format imaginable, forever.

It sounds like Utopia, to me (And I just downloaded it for free on my Kindle: Utopia, by Saint Thomas More). The best of all possible worlds! (I just downloaded Candide, also – 99 cents!).

Volaire might say I sound a little too much like Pangloss, but time will tell.

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