So I've spent the last couple of days really trying to think through the whole eBook thing. I know I can get books on my iPod Touch and I know I can download them to my computer but I never thought of these as satisfying alternatives to reading. But both the nook and the Kindle presented themselves as worthwhile. At least to think about. I'm not a technophobe, I'm not a gadget guy. I'm a reader, I'm a writer, and books have always meant a lot so I've been trying to see what was in it for me.
The first thing I noticed when I was reading reviews was how much the focus was on the multiple things the devices all could do. They could hold a lot of books (save paper, easy to carry, great for travel). They could hold a lot of music. They were lightweight, portable, easy (and getting easier to use), especially if you're comfortable with devices, with touch screens, etc. Buying books was easy. Very easy. Easier than going into a bookstore and browsing, easier than ordering on-line and waiting for a mail delivery.
But that presented my first moment of confusion. I discovered that my own books, while available as paper were not available from Barnes & Noble for the nook. That only Poet in New York was available from Amazon for the Kindle. And a lot of other books, in particular books of poetry and from small presses were not available. I did like the fact that there were some unusual titles out there (a number for free) that I might otherwise might not have considered. The complete works of Marti, for example. Rilke's complete poems in German. Not bad, but not priority.
I went to the local Barnes and Noble to do some more looking. I held the nook. Very comfortable. The use of the thing took some getting used to but I could see myself adjusting. Pushing buttons to turn pages, going back through screens to go forward to other screens. In the store, they allowed me to download O'Hara's Selected Poems so I could see how it would all work and it was nice to see that the line formatting was right though it had to be double-spaced to achieve that. Ashbery's poems (downloaded one of his) did not have the double-spacing. Okay, I thought, this isn't so bad. I already own these books so I wasn't going to buy them, but what about other books. Again, back to the dilemma. A quick attempt at browsing showed no Lorca poetry has made it to eBooks for the nook. No Vallejo. These were not exactly random choices--I was thinking about my own interests. So I checked out the total number of poetry titles available: 845. This includes a lot of out of print and public domain stuff. Not great pickings. And hard to shop for, I have to admit, because the nook is not designed for browsing, it is designed for buying. You can browse, but it is easier to do it on the computer or in the store.
Still, all in the realm of the possible for me. Because over time, right? The books will be available, they'll figure out the browsing thing. This is the wave of the future. All that. So I held the nook. I pushed buttons. It was nice. Pushed buttons. Then I realized (duh) no facing pages. Then I realized. No casual flipping. I put the nook down and picked up a book. I flipped, went forwards and backwards, read a line, read a line, read a line, forwards backwards. I held the book.
And that was it. A sudden realization. There are many ways to write, many reasons to write. I am typing on a computer. I am comfortable doing this. I am comfortable with the keyboard, with the screen.
But this is not the way I write when I write poetry, when I write essays, when I translate. I write longhand in a notebook. I write longhand on a pad. I scratch out, erase, put arrows, squiggles, lines. I write a word. I look at it. I write a word next to it. Look at the two together. I think about them.
And reading is the same way. I read e-mails. I read blogs. I read letters. I read newspapers. I read magazines. I read poetry, fiction, essays. And I do read them differently. The flaw in the eBook, or at least the nook (and the same when I've read books on a computer and on my iPod Touch), was that it was fine for reading in a certain way, fine for reading certain things. But for reading the things I most want to read and in the ways I like to read them, it simply doesn't offer the pleasure or the engagement of a printed book. If I were simply using it for a newspaper or a magazine, it makes a kind of sense. If a memo, or instructions, if for quick info, etc. But for reading poetry and fiction, it is now so limited. Browsing is a chore. Poetry doesn't give me a chance to see the facing page text (and forget works in translation). Art books forget as well.
And what do I do when I find an essay in the nook that I want Katherine to look at. What do I do while she reads? I can't read from the nook. She has it. So I either wait to read. Or, yes, I suppose I have to pick up a book.
eBooks allow you to have libraries and they are organized in multiple useful ways. Still you can't really open several books and look at them all together at once. I'm sitting in my study now and I have four books open to different pages. I can put them down, pick them up. They are all physically there. And while this may seem a mess, it's really very practical. It's a kind of aesthetically pleasing and practical clutter. These books are not organized by author, nor by title. I know I sometimes wish my bookshelves were but then what about the pleasure of stumbling on one book while I am looking for another? What about the history of the book, the object, itself? And by this I don't mean any book, I mean my book. In my handwriting, in one on the first page, it reads, Mark Statman, Bogota, 1988. Another book says Mark Statman, New York, 1986. And the handwriting is different. I was different.
And some books are signed to me, notes from the writer, notes from the giver, dated, signed editions. These mean something too. Along with my handwritten notes, my post-it notes. Some have bookmarks from bookstores that no longer exist. Some have bookmarks, handmade, by friends.
By my bedside is a stack of books. Before I go to sleep I may read through three or four. I don't know which ones. I don't know which order. There are about ten from which I can choose and I can look at their spines and wonder. I pick one up, put it down, pick up another, another, go back. There is an art to this. It's idiosyncratic. It's clear. It makes sense to me. My mess. I know where almost everything is. But not everything.
And that's why I don't want a nook or a Kindle right now. They may make things easier, but I lose some of the accidents and mystery that make reading something I love so much.