Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Philip Graham

By Philip Graham

Over the next month or so we're going to be offering a new series of guest posts (read the first series,”The Next Decade in Book Culture here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. NBCC member, author, professor Philip Graham shared these thoughts on the subject at the NBCC “Rise of the E-Book”  panel at the Early Spring Literary Festival at the University of Illinois,Champaign-Urbana.

I'm on a book tour now, presently in Tallahassee.  I’m staying at the home of Robert Olen Butler, and this morning he has been showing me how to navigate through the Kindle (he has two, plus the Kindle app for his iPhone).  I've never really examined an e-book before—though I have plenty of opinions on the subject—and while the thing didn’t immediately impress me as something I might read from, it didn’t seem entirely alien, either.  On the other hand, my son is one of the team leaders working on the iBook application for the iPad, so I’ll certainly be taking a closer look at how to read on this new technological gewgaw.

Still, I hesitate.  There are aspects of book life I’ll miss if books made of paper vanish from this earth.  First: the signed book.  How could one sign an e-book?  Or get someone’s book signed?  I’ll miss those authorial scrawls, a writer’s brief postcard inviting you to visit the territory he or she has discovered. 

Second: throwing a book.  The only way my shallow college student self managed to continue through to the end of the four million pages of Samuel Richardson’s narrative glacier of a novel, Clarissa, was to fling it against the wall every couple of hours.  That would be much too costly a rant for a Kindle or an iPad.

Third: kissing a book.  If I read a book that has offered me a world I’ll never forget, one that is already shaping my own view of the world, I’ll actually kiss the cover.  I can’t imagine kissing the screen of an e-book, there’d be no returning warmth.  Plus, in order to properly read the next book, I’d have to wipe the affectionate evidence from the screen.  Bad karma, that, wiping away a kiss you’ve bestowed on a book. Almost as bad as flinging a book against a wall.

Fourth: the bookshelf and the book pile.  Bookshelves are a form of autobiography, though an autobiography much more of interior events than exterior events.  Bookshelves are personal maps and self-portraits, the jumble of color and image of all those spines facing out a thing of beauty.  As for book piles, I currently have three stacks of as yet un-read books arranged on a side desk in my study, each book among them begging for future attention.  I walk by those stacks often in a day, regarding their contents, rearranging in my mind which book I might read next, depending on my mood or the place I’m at in the current book I’m reading.  I’m not so sure a simple list of queued books on an e-book’s screen is a suitable replacement.

So, I might eventually fall in love with the e-book format, as many of my friends already have, but I’ll never forget at what cost.  Though of course the new rituals of e-book reading might offer pleasures I can’t yet imagine . . .