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Life in Books

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People always say “Oh I love the smell of a new book when you open it.” I used to go along with this, nod wisely, say “Ah yes, nothing like it,” but secretly I didn’t agree.

I’m sure when I was young new books didn’t have a particularly noticeable smell, certainly not one you could be addicted to. Perhaps in those far-off times of natural inks and relatively natural paper they didn’t, and the smell we associate with a new book now, like the “smell of a new car,” is actually a nasty compound of all kinds of modern carcinogenic compounds.

I didn’t really get all that many new books anyway, except as Xmas and Birthday presents. The rest of the year I trooped off to the public library and borrowed more books and trooped home again (a distance of several miles each way). The library was like Aladdin’s cave, but did have its disadvantages. I still remember the desperation as I finished the first volume of Lord of the Rings in a three-volume set only to find volume two missing when I returned, craving the continuation of the adventure. In addition on Saturday when I went to the afternoon film matinee (Hopalong and Roy and the rest; lots of cliffhangers, and bridgehangers and towerhangers; and narrow escapes from runaway trains and landslides) I would buy, very cheaply, secondhand books from a little shop next to the cinema. The problem with that was the condition of the books, and I still angrily remember, some 60 years later, reading to the second last page of a book I was really enjoying only to discover that the last page had been torn out by some juvenile delinquent of a previous owner. These are the things that try men’s souls.

Anyway, for me, books were characterised not by smell but by look and feel. The large format, highly illustrated, thin children’s books, gave way to chunkier normal books like grown-ups had. A thick book with small type promised a long story to live in (and you could tell, anxiously, as you approached the end of a story, how far there was to go by the thickness of pages held between fingers of your right hand). Paperbacks gave a feeling of being based in the modern world. On the book shelf I could recognise the look of old book friends, as surely as I could human friends in playground or shop.

And so the years went by, accumulating more and more friends on my book shelves, now crowding around me as I write. I became a book publisher, and learnt the processes by which written words on a page become books of certain sizes and shapes, look and feel. Fought with authors who had unreal visions for how their books should look; worked with others whose clear vision of their work made solid could be transferred into the real world of book shop and book shelf.

Then I at long last became an author myself. Clutched the first copy of each book against my chest, as if all the blood sweat and tears that had gone into the production could be absorbed back into my heart. Felt, yes indeed, that each long anticipated work was like seeing your child for the first time in the delivery room.

Might have gone on forever this love affair with books as objects. I managed to acquire some first editions. Experienced the joy of reading a first edition of Pickwick Papers, reading from an actual page just as some unknown person had done, knowing nothing of Sam Weller, some 170 years earlier. Loved the look and feel of old books from nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries, wanted to see them on my shelves rubbing shoulders with modern paperbacks by new favourite authors.

But now it has all changed, and for two reasons. First the passage of time, and with it the inevitable baton passing between generations, has left me with a whole lot of new “stuff” including books, on top of what I had. Hasn’t quite doubled the number of “things” but has greatly added to it, and it is obvious that as I pass on the baton in turn and so ad infinitum a great wave of stuff is going to swamp later generations. So suddenly my appetite for adding new books (always excluding the first edition Origin of Species, of course) has vanished almost overnight.

It might still not have been quite enough to switch me to electronic books, which I had long held in contempt (no smell, no look, no feel). I could go on kidding myself, like a potentially reformed smoker, that just one more book would be the last, could give up any time I wanted to. Then it all changed with an unexpected medical diagnosis. I found myself facing months of treatment being stuck in a chair for five hours at a time in a situation where one hand was unusable and there was essentially no place to put a book.

The answer, reluctantly, an ebook reader. Took to it like a duck to wet cement. How could you read books like this on a screen? Not right, would never be right. And then, and then. Well, actually this isn’t too bad at all, is it? Screen well lit, large font, two page spread, and oh, hey, you can “turn pages” as fast as you like, one handed, with just a touch of a finger tip in the corner. I can stop, turn it off briefly to talk to a nurse, come back in and it has remembered the spot I was up to. Oh, wow, this is all right, how did I ever read books any other way? Five hours flashes by.

And, other big advantage, nothing new cluttering up my shelves. Huge books occupying no space at all except as a few electrons. Way to go.

There are other advantages and disadvantages, but on balance it is clear to me that this is the way of the future. Some ten years ago when my third book went on line as an ebook it was meaningless, meant nothing against the physical object in my hand. Had you asked me if ebooks had a future I would have been doubtful, if you had asked me if books of the traditional kind, back to Pickwick Papers and beyond would still be around in another 170 years I would have said “of course”. Ask me now and I would give the opposite answers to both questions.

Is there life in books? Yes, as electrons. Is there life beyond books? No, of course not. Doesn’t matter how you read them, it’s the communication of author and reader that matters, always did.

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About David Horton