Saturday, October 29, 2011

Passion #2: portable works of art

For a while I've been considering whether an e-reader is in my future. Converted friends who are big readers swear by them, but I've been unwilling to let go of the sensory experience of the book -- the feel of the pages, the look of the type, the design of the book itself.  Right now, for example, I'm reading Amitav Ghosh's latest, River of Smoke, in hardback, and every time I turn a page, I am moved by the softness and smoothness of the paper Farrar, Straus and Giroux chose for this edition.  Each page is a sensuous delight, sliding liquid under my fingers, a river of its own.

I have been feeling suspicious that perhaps books are just something I'm used to, a habit.  Probably there are people who kept all of their LPs and swear that that experience is vastly superior to loading all of your music from a CD onto an MP3 player, or downloading it from iTunes.  They may be right, but I made that switch from records to CDs to MP3 long ago and have never looked back, delighted to free up the shelf space, to carry it all in some tiny device that fits in my pockets.  Books, though, are harder for me to imagine living without.  I grew up in a big house that had books, shelves and stacks and piles of them, in every single room.  I have loved and carried books around with me everywhere for years, collected them even as a child, returning to treasured copies, pages I'd handled dozens of times.  But maybe that's a generational thing, I ask myself, an antiquated abuse of trees that needs to end.

So, I've been feeling myself tipping and tipping over into the e-reader camp, reading about the new Kindle Fire but leaning mostly toward an iPad.  Oh, my converted friends tell me, so much easier just to carry the e-reader around in your bag.  Anytime you have a few moments, your book is there with you, so light.  You get used to the fact that you are X% done with a book, rather than knowing what page you're on. You get used to it always being in the same typeface. And so much easier to travel with.  With an e-reader, they tell me, you can take so many titles on the road with you, download more wherever you have wifi, bam, have reading in your hands wherever you are, whenever you want it.  No waiting. The travel and instant grat argument really work for me, since while traveling I generally run out of books.  But the truth is that I don't  travel all that much lately so that's a less compelling argument than it might once have been when I was on a plane roughly every two to three weeks, with 2 books in my carry-on, 4-6 in my checked luggage.

But here's what I remembered yesterday and this morning, the reason I keep hesitating on the e-reader issue: I LOVE books.  Not just the stories and wisdom they contain, but their very physical selves, their delightful little paper bodies.

Once, when I mentioned to my crafty husband that I was running out of book shelves, could he please make me some more, he said, "Or, think about this, you could just get rid of some books."  I looked at him sidelong like he was joking.  He wasn't, but honestly, that's not a possibility that's on the table. The only books I ever get rid of are books that are such a disappointment that I can't finish them (last year's Booker Prize winner, for examp, sorry, couldn't read it, freecycled it just to get it out of my sight, Emma Donoghue's Room should have won) or books that piss me off (like the Charles Bukowski that Margot and I famously stuffed down the trash chute in Paris).  

Truly, I love books.  When I go to a new house, it's one of the things I notice -- what books people have, how they store them, how integral a part of their lives books are.

After months of build-up, Haruki Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84, arrived in my mailbox yesterday.  [If you haven't read Murakami, do yourself a big favor and do so.  Read more about him in this profile in the New York Times magazine.]  I've had 1Q84 on pre-order for ages and been checking the mailbox compulsively ever since I received the email on Tuesday, hallelujah, that it had finally shipped.  Murakami is one of my most favorites, ever since a dear friend gave me The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and I fell in love completely, unable to put it down even when one scene was making me so ill on the ferry on the way to work that I broke out into a sweat and eventually had to slither my way to the little cubicle-toilet, put my head down and recover.  When you're in that Murakami world, nothing else matters. As soon as I was back in my seat, composed, back in I went, hungry for more.

When I saw the Amazon package yesterday afternoon, I tore it open.  It'd been a long day on a work retreat, and I was tired.  A friend was over, talking bikes with the husband, but I stood there only half-listening, undoing the cardboard package in my excitement, unable to wait til he was done talking or gone.  A little bit Charlie looking for the Golden Ticket, careful with the wrapping, but undoing it just the same. 

Whoever said, "Don't judge a book by its cover," is a straight-up fool or never beheld this particular book.  1Q84 is absolutely GORGEOUS, so thoughtfully constructed: the vellum cover, the spine, the frontispiece, the font.  

I haven't even yet fallen under the spell of what's inside its pages, but I am already profoundly in love with this complete work of art that I can hold in my hands.

And that, my friends, is why I can't go the e-reader route.  A book is more than just letters that make words that make sentences that make paragraphs that flow by uninterrupted on a backlit screen.  A book, 1Q84 reminds me, is, should be, a total work of art, not only the particular story that it tells but the WAY in which that story is told, the way particular words sit on a physical piece of paper, the choice of font, the look of the chapter headings, all of it.

It is a profoundly human artistic experience both to produce a book like this and to read a book like this, taking in all of these exquisite details, each one of them building a supreme experience of the imagination, a celebration of all that is absolutely the very best about us.  When we do that on a little screen, I am convinced we lose most of that precious experience.

I'm just thrilled to start reading 1Q84 as soon as I polish off the last 90 pages of River of Smoke.  I know I will be transported, as always, by Murakami's prose.  And I will have the supreme joy of touching, seeing, smelling the story, holding the book in my hands, that total and most portable of works of art, truly my first love, my unending love.


For more visuals, watch this piece by the book designer, Chip Kidd.  Good work, man!

1 comment:

Martine said...

Thank you for such a beautiful defense of graphic design. xx