BLOG POST: The timeless concept of books – Wan Ying Tay
So far I have been successful in resisting buying an e-book reader. Companies such as Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony, have been introducing sleek and smart-looking e-book readers into the market over the past couple of years, with more in the pipeline. Whilst the main reason is financial prudence, I also do not feel I am quite ready to move on to e-book readers. I am, however, attracted to the idea of e-book readers, especially its portability and storage capacity. Having just shipped half a dozen of boxes worth of books due to relocation and paid a hefty shipping cost for them, I am enticed by the idea of simply carrying an e-book reader with me onto the plane, and transporting my library of books electronically. Whilst I have not purchased an e-book reader, I have bought several e-books online, some of which are available for free on Amazon. Being able to purchase an e-book with a few mouse clicks makes it more convenient to lay my hands on titles that I am eager to read or are not yet available in print. From the publishing point of view, it is easier for aspiring or first-time writers to publish their work and reach out to a wider audience.
Yet, like many electronic gadgets, e-book readers are not able to withstand the test of time as well as printed books. New designs and functionalities can make old devices obsolete or less appealing within a short period of time. Scratched or cracked screens or low battery life may ruin the reading experience. Although printed books are just as vulnerable to wear and tear, unless there are missing pages, they are often still very much in readable condition, and are less costly to replace.
Despite the attractiveness of e-books, I am still drawn to conventional printed books. To me, there is nothing like spending half a day in a library or a bookstore, browsing through the massive collection of books, flipping through the pages, then making the decision on which books to buy. Perhaps it is the materiality of books that I am attracted to – its cover, its spine, its lettering, the type of paper and font, etc. I can do without my collection of vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs, and can live with having my albums digitalised, so long as the quality of music is not compromised too much. However, I cannot imagine not owning printed copies of my favourite books.
I suspect it is more than just the materiality of books that I am drawn to. Perhaps it is the overall sensory experience that one may feel when reading a book. Perhaps it is the “soulfulness” of books that makes them so attractive. I cannot say for certain. But I am reminded of a book written and illustrated by Lane Smith, titled “It’s a book” (A video clip of “It’s a book” can be viewed here). This tongue-in-cheek book tells a story of a donkey’s encounter with the book “Treasure Island”. The story begins with the donkey asking his friend, a monkey, about what he is reading. The monkey replies nonchalantly, “It’s a book”. Still not understanding what it is, the donkey goes on to ask a series of questions such as “How do you scroll down?”, “Does it need a password?”, “Do you blog with it?” and “Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?”, to which the monkey gives the same answer, “It’s a book”. Exasperated, the monkey hands the donkey the book. Taking a first glance at the book, the donkey still does not seem convinced of its appeal, and even says there are “too many letters”. It is only when he reads the book that he become captivated by the story. In the next few illustrations that follows, the reader sees the donkey transfixed by the story. He pores over it for hours before saying “I will charge it up when I’m done” to the monkey. Such is a wry testimony of what a book can provide us. It may not be able to do the fanciful things like blog, text, tweet, but it does what it does best in a simple yet elegant fashion, that is, to tell a captivating story. That, I believe, is the timeless concept of books. Regardless of its form, whether printed or electronic, the essence of a book lies in its text. The medium is secondary. For now, I am happy reading printed books. I am not quite ready to move on to reading e-books, but I think I may do so in time to come, when these devices become more affordable, or when the technology becomes more ubiquitous.