A Little More Than Kin...
'So what do you want for Christmas?' I asked last year, expecting the usual muttered prevarications.
'A Kindle,' he replied, as quick as you like.
'Are you sure?'
'Yes. I've researched it.'
So there it was. Another dedicated reader opting into the cyber-zone. Only thing is, this was my father doing the opting. And he's eighty-four years old.
Those clever Amazonian geeks came up with a Cunning Plan when they named the Kindle. The word is redolent with the homespun, the hand made. I'm sure it's no coincidence that it rhymes with spindle, conjuring up visions of calm, Vermeer women spinning cloth, or weatherbeaten peasants gathering kindling for a welcoming fire. The word kind implies a certain benevolence, along with the diminution of kin. This little gadget will be good to your eyes, gentle on your pocket and will feel like part of the family. The adverts show dogs licking them, for heaven's sake.
My father loves his new Kindle. It's light and portable. He can adjust the font size, slip it into a pocket, browse and download from Amazon, try out books for free.
'Don't you miss having a real book to hold? Turning the pages? The smell of paper?'
I can see his point. And I accept that this is the way publishing's heading. Already, only 60% or so of books are 'real', so in a relatively short time, books as we've known them will be a rarity. I foresee a time when clandestine meetings will be held at which participants handle, sniff and read Real Books. With a motto such as Hug A Hardback. Like the Campaign for Real Ale, and just as intoxicating. Though beards and sandals won't be mandatory.
Call me a Luddite, but I will be sad at the passing of the traditional book. Not just because of the fifty-odd years I've spent collecting, reading and, latterly, writing them, but for the following reasons:
A cover is the face of a book. The thing that attracts you to it, before you've had a chance to browse inside. It's what makes a book an individual, a character, marks it out from the rest. Real Books have covers with images and colours and, in the case of hardbacks, more colour lurking beneath the jacket like secret underwear. Remember Mazo de la Roche's Jalna series, with their odd, peachy covers? And the Swallows and Amazons series (sludge green)?
- Weight and size. The big, solid, bruiser of a hardback, willing and able to sit in your bookshelf for decades. The jam-it-in-your-pocket-and-to-hell-with-the-consequences paperback. How many Kindles do you see propping up recalcitrant table-legs?
- Accessories. I've a huge collection of bookmarks, so useful for showing me just how far I've got in a book, and how much there is to go. And remember bookplates? Those little sticky labels, often with gorgeous designs, that you could stick in the front of your book - your book - and carefully inscribe with your name, marking it out as your own.
- Sensuality. I love the feel of pristine books on shelves, all innocent and virginal and untouched. I love the feel of a page - that slightly rough, slightly- reluctant-to-open feel. And (shut your eyes here, all purists) I love to mark my books. My non-fiction titles are full of underlinings and scribbled notes. I like old, well-thumbed books, the corners of their pages bent, frayed with use, stained with coffee and chocolate and who-knows-what. The way they fall open to favourite passages. There's something friendly about a Real Book. Something comforting.
Real Books appeal to brain and body, synapses and senses. A Real Book is a miniature world of the imagination, gained through a physical portal. Like the Narnian wardrobe with its musty coats and creaking doors, a Real Book keeps us, the readers, anchored in the world, even as it encourages our imaginations to fly.
I would go further. Every Real Book is a potential relationship, with a body you can touch, stroke, smell and hold. Anything less is akin (geddit?) to a vibrator.
Cyber-sex is all very well at a pinch, but when it comes to reading, I'd rather have The Real Thing.