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Downsizing To An E-Reader

My family is filled with serious readers. When together, we collect books, trade books, talk books. Even the little humans among us refuse to go to sleep without their favorite stories being read to them.

Recently, during an all-hands-on-deck session to help a family member with a move, while packing up about 20 shelves crammed with books, I got to wondering. Remember how, back in the old days (and by “old,” I mean the pre-Kindle days), the worst part about moving was relocating all the boxes of books?

Such a pain that was, transporting those deceptively small containers. Each one weighing more than a Vespa.

Nowadays, my garage holds my overflow books. It looks like the Leaning Tower of Inked-Up Pages in there, with a giant stack of cardboard boxes filling up one entire corner. It is a daily reminder of the relentless path of progress. Of how I lived my life before Amazon’s e-reader upended an entire industry.

But the Kindle did more than just redirect books from inside shelves to outside storage. It has changed the way we serious readers live in our own spaces.

I have nearly 600 e-books, a mixture of novels both purchased and free, on my Kindle. Six hundred! I have a good-size house, but there is absolutely no room for adding even half as many new paperbacks and hardcovers. Not if I want to keep from appearing on a future episode of Book Hoarders, a show TLC doesn’t actually produce. Yet.

I shake my head when I think about all that square footage, dedicated for so long to all those physical books, now “downsized” into an e-reader no larger than a picture frame.

It’s remarkable. It’s terrifying.

So what do we readers do now with all that space formerly occupied by shelving and books? Empty space rarely sits empty for long. At least in my experience. Whatever fills it, replaces it, will change us, and change the way we live our lives.

Part of loving books is loving the feel of them, the look of them. Loving the type of statement a nice big shelf of them makes to the world. None of those experiences can exist if novels are confined to e-readers. Really, where will technology take us next? Replacing wall art with holograms?

Possibly, the first stage of this downsizing occurred with the (seemingly overnight) mass-migration to the MP3 format for music. Suddenly, instead of buying a colony of spinning towers to hold neatly organized CD’s, thousands of songs could now fit in an object no larger than a deck of cards.

In hindsight, it was a natural step for books to be the next target of innovation.

The e-book revolution has altered our ability to express ourselves visually, in instant and obvious ways. (How many times have you looked around while on the Subway, or in a waiting room or coffee shop, to take stock of what others are reading?)

I remember, years ago, going through my dad’s record collection from his days at university. I would spend hours staring at the covers and switching out those large round disks, always being extra careful not to leave a scratch on any of them. The music would flow from the preposterously large (by today’s measure) stereo speakers and fill every corner of the room, bringing those walls to life in a way that only sunlight could match.

Even though my dad valued his collection, innovation won out. He now stores and plays his music electronically. But with that gain of mobility and ease-of-use, other things were lost. No more afternoons spent lounging on the floor, listening to the static-filled sound of worn records playing, while trying to discover and decipher the hidden messages on their beautiful covers.

If I pick up my smartphone to play music, I end up checking my emails, my texts, my blogs, my social media. I used to think an all-in-one resource was great. Now I realize that I’ve unintentionally cornered myself.

There is no relief, no escape from the attacks on the subconscious coming from that little voice, the one that says, “Well, you should just see if any work issues have popped up. So what if it is a Saturday afternoon and you are on a boat on a lake with excellent company?”

Stress generators have become the gatekeepers to books and music. Which, ironically, have long been cherished as sources of stress relief.

After all, a record is just a record. A music CD is just a music CD. But the days of simplicity are gone. MP3 players, smart phones, and advanced e-readers are portals to other worlds, other realities, letting us physically exist in one place while “living” in another.

Before the rise of e-books, I used to sit at the dining room table, a pile of newly bought or traded books in front of me, and choose my reading for the next week. It was a lovely process, though a bit time-consuming. I would study the fronts, then read the backs, then the first few pages of the novels. I would weigh my decisions and, once made, I would commit to reading those novels all the way through.

A story isn’t told until the reader gets to the final page of the novel. And, until that page has been turned, a reader cannot effectively or honestly evaluate the story, or the writing. Or the author, for that matter.

And yet, how many times does a person reading a book lose interest and decide not to keep going because he or she has given up hope in the story, and in the storyteller? Is a reader more likely to finish a book if that book is printed, and not electronic?

I wonder.

Twilight sat on my desk for months before I read it. For the first 200 hundred pages, I couldn’t understand what all the hype was about. Then, with one paragraph — and those 200 pages to build the context for that one paragraph — it was love for me.

Another book, this one written by Jodi Picoult, left me so unbelievably frustrated with the heroine that I had to force myself to keep turning the pages. To stay with the story, the author, and trust that she was taking me somewhere I wanted to go.

Again, a single paragraph, two-thirds of the way through, brought the magic of Jodi Picoult’s storytelling into full view. All those frustrating bits early on turned out to have been part of the stunningly well-developed personal journey of the protagonist.

If I had put the book down, given up, I would not have the appreciation I do for Ms. Picoult’s work. And I certainly wouldn’t have read any more of her books.

E-books change things, though, don’t they? Unlike with paperbacks and hardcovers, I find I don’t always finish what I start when a story is in electronic format. I have a tendency to flip around, like channel surfing, until I find something to fit my mood. Used to be, I went to my bookshelf looking for something to change my mood.

And yet, 600 e-books later, I’m clearly a fan of the innovation. Maybe it’s because I know I won’t have to find physical space in my house for all those e-books. Heck, I don’t even have to leave the house to get them! (All you fellow night owls, you know what I’m saying.)

There is a scene in Love Comes Softly, a historical romance, in which a woman’s massive traveling trunk is opened, revealing a stockpile of books she had brought with her all the way across the country, by way of covered wagon. A neighbor looks at the contents of the trunk and remarks that her husband must have loved her very much to have hauled all those books 2,000 miles, and that any other man would have tossed them off after the first big hill.

The idea that her books made it all the way west has always struck me as being exceptionally romantic. Not sexy — romantic.

I am a modern woman and have relocated my own ever-growing stacks of books, both aided and unaided, a number of times. But my ability to move my own books isn’t the point. In that scene from Love Comes Softly, by acknowledging and supporting his wife’s priorities, the husband was clearly demonstrating to her that he understood her passion for books. Her need of books. He was showing his respect for her through his treatment of them.

I wonder, in a present-day version of that story, how the husband would communicate that same unmitigated support and love if his reading-obsessed wife stored all her books on a Nook? Kind of changes the mood, doesn’t it? And drains out all the sweetness.

Personally, I’m planning to leave a little room in my life — and my overstuffed bookshelves — for romance over practicality. Just in case.

 

 

 

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