What is it about Books, really?

I read a particularly heartfelt essay in early 2011 that explored a writer’s personal book memories, expounding on the many reasons why paper books were important in spite of the modern-day acceptance of their digital counterparts. The essayist listed some of her fonder memories of packing books in a suitcase to read over the summer and climbing a tree with a paperback wedged in her back pocket.

After I finished reading the essay, I noted how the writer’s musings paralleled my own experiences. Nearly everyone I know–who has ever read a good book–remembers when they first read it, where they were sitting (or standing) while they read it and most remember all the characters and (most of) the minute details the good author penned.

While I enjoyed reading the essayist’s delightfully varied book memories, she came just short of really explaining why many folks cling to the paper medium in a sort of desperate nostalgia. I’ve heard the “book smell” argument, the tactile-feel-of-the-page rebuttal, the defense of the cover, the full-page illustrations argument, the ease-of-use pleas and the cases presented for paper books being one of the last “unplugged” items. I have not, however, heard or read about why a physical hold-it-in-your-hand paper book really appeals to humans.

To me, it is because the contents of a paper book defies the physics of its appearance. Without the aid of electricity (and with little to no fanfare) what seems to be a bunch of squiggly lines–on pieces of pressed wood pulp, slapped together with industrial glue—is in actuality an invisible treasure chest, just waiting to let that golden glow out onto the face of the reader upon being opened. A good book is the closest thing to real magic that a logical person can experience. Opening this unassuming recyclable shape sets the imagination loose… no film, soundtrack, digital screen, online platform, remote or batteries needed. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating parallel universe that can contain knowledge, opinions, poetry… or an entire realm of fictional creatures entirely consumed in their own lives, waiting to begin or continue their respective journeys.

Just the act of reading provokes the most profound memories, which is something I’ve not only witnessed in others but have experienced, myself. My first memory of books was of my father reading The Hobbit out loud–to my brother and I–by the flickering light of a campfire (a thing which just made the trolls and goblins all the scarier.) The Lord of the Rings followed in the summers—and winters–to come, interspersed with the Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess & The Goblin, Robinson Crusoe and many other tales. My parents gave us paper and colored pencils to draw with while we listened at home, or laundry to fold; my mother would knit or sew as the stories filled the air, while the television–in the corner of the room–sat dark and silent.

In middle and high school–during which I discovered how heartily I disliked the company of my fellow youngsters—my parents remedied my abject loneliness with piles of books; Austen and Forester; Peters, Wodehouse and Shute; Stevenson and Defoe; Doyle, Dumas and Durrell… such minds were these! Such stories did they write on this strangely bland medium of paper and ink. I began to look upon these writers first as visionaries, and then friends, teachers and finally, muses. Like the essayist at the beginning of this piece I, too, began carefully selecting books to take with me various places and even scaled (numerous times) a nearby alder to sit among the breeze-blown branches and read.

That is the reason many are so disinclined to stop regarding paper books as “real” books despite the advances of technology, social movements toward anything labeled “green” and the very real threat of younger generations growing up with all-digital libraries. It is not a thing so singular as ‘smell’, or ‘touch’ but it is rather the entire experience of opening printed paper pages—with no flash animation–and yet one is still able to ‘see’ a full realm billow out of the object, the details of which (if the writer knows their stuff) engage all of the senses… and is powered only by the brain.

Books are literally the stuff dreams are made of, only tangible.

Can eBooks ever really capture that unique experience? As an eBook writer and proponent I can only say “I hope so.” EBooks continue to sell globally in the billions of dollars, so I assume at least a few million folks-with-money think they come “close enough.” It is true that most eBooks need assistance in order to make up for the loss of paper smell and physical page-turning, such as swiping animation, music, digital bookmarking, images, re-flowable text and other bells and whistles.

But, hope is not lost, for there be one more asset in the digitized book industry’s arsenal… a transition between the old and the new: the audio-book.

It is a category within publishing that seems to still sell extraordinarily well, and in this I am not surprised. The voice carries a weight to it, soulful inflections that digital text (nor computers) cannot plausibly imitate… yet. Handy to load on one’s music player/phone and listen to during commute/ travel/ waiting-in-line, audio books seem to be the most popular when read by someone with a voice that can spark the imagination… one that re-captures that ethereal, memory-laden notion of “real” books being read aloud.

It is that still-burning desire for paper that led several of our epic fantasy series fans to request that we offer our series in paperback. Once considered a daunting quest–for a small operation like ours–the POD system proffered by CreateSpace made this dream fulfill-able, helped along by the somewhat recent decrease in printing costs. For about $11 retail we were able to put out the first of our Kingdom Isle series in a 304 page paperback last week, doing the formatting with InDesign and Fireworks for the cover art. We are not only pleased with the result as it appears online, but once the first proofs made it to our doorsteps, we experienced that unique sensation of holding the full weight of our work in our hands.

You can see (and buy) our very own out-of-book experience Here.

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L. R. Styles is an author at Belator Books

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