Life in the margins—of books, that is

I still buy print books: these are from my "to read" shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

I still buy print books: these are from my “to read” shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

About half the books I read now are just electronic files on a Kindle. No creases on the cover art, no dog-eared pages, no margins to write in. This is one thing ebooks cannot replicate: the stuff that happens to the book during the reading process. Somehow, electronic highlights and comments on an ereader are not quite the same.

Do you fold back your covers? Often I can’t resist, as I start a new book, pressing the cover open: a loved book is a creased book, after all.
And despite all my efforts to stop them, successive cats I have owned have ALL enjoyed chewing the corners of my books, tell-tale fang holes appearing mysteriously after I’ve been out of the room.
When I was growing up, we were taught never to write in the margins of books. So-called “marginalia” was acceptable only in a text book and then only if you owned it and you wrote in pencil. On a novel, though, the most you could do was write your name and maybe the year on the top right of the title page. It goes without saying that writing anything on library books was forbidden.
So, most of my old books are pristine: but now I wish I’d broken the rules and written my thoughts in the margins.
I made an exception when I was studying German language and literature at university. German was hard and I’d go through texts meticulously, translating every word I didn’t know. Recently, I came across one of my books from that time, a Hörspiel—a radio play— Zum Tee Bei Dr. Borsig, by Heinrich Böll. As well as copious and tedious translations in pencil, my 19-year-old self had written in the margin of one page, “Sooo boring”!
Go back further to myself as a child, aged about 13. My family and I had lived in Los Angeles for a few years and I’d acted in some TV shows and films, so I fancied myself as quite the director-producer-performer when we returned to New Zealand. Back home from Hollywood though and it was back to amateur stage shows in and around Auckland, and fierce competition at auditions.
You were always supposed to give back scripts at the end of a production, but somehow,  I  still have a script from a 1970s production of  The Sound of Music, a typewritten, plain brown-covered script stamped throughout with “TGA Choral and Operatic Society Library”. Although the script says it’s published by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Music Library, I somehow doubt that, because on the title page in capital letters, it says it is “THE RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN LUBRARY EDITION”. Yes, a typo.
SOM-scriptUntil recently, I had forgotten about this script, but my mother found it stored in a box and gave it to me. In it is a lot of marginalia by various actors who performed in the show over the years—pencilled-in dance steps, rehearsal dates, changes to lines, stage directions and so on.

SOM-script3_0002On p. 3 is the cast list, and you can still make out my additions: I’ve obviously been dreaming (quite ridiculously) about producing The Sound of Music at school, because beside some of the characters on the list, I’ve written the names of various friends I thought might be right for the role. Never mind that we were an all-girl school, and Debbie would be cast as Captain Georg von Trapp, while Lucy would have to make do as Franz the butler, and Andrea would be Friedrich. There is no name beside the lead character of Maria—of course, I would have been secretly casting myself in that role.
SOM-script3_0001As ebooks take over (and don’t get me wrong, I love this format for its portability), and even actors use tablet computers to rehearse their scripts, marginalia like this will no longer be made. How we read our books, how, why and where we marked them: these are fascinating insights into our lives and times.

Weekly Writing Challenge: the great ebook versus pbook debate

Over at The Daily Post,  They’re having a debate about ebooks versus printed books. There’s been so much talk about how printed books are doomed, that there’s a danger this  could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, I am both a bibliophile and a bookworm. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I also love new technology and, since 2008, have made a concerted effort to keep up with it. I love my Mac, iPhone, iPad and Kindle and I learn something new about them every day.

kindle
Well, I don’t learn so much about the Kindle, because there’s not much to learn: and that’s the way I like it. I have the old-style one with the keyboard, bought in 2010, from memory. My husband has a new one with a touch screen and virtual keyboard.
I have to say, I like mine better. The touch screen is annoying because you can suddenly touch the wrong thing and lose your page. The virtual keyboard is harder to use. Not that I use the keyboard much. My Kindle is for reading—not for games, emails, Facebook or surfing the net. Just reading.
That pretty much makes my Kindle just like a real book, only weighing less. When I first got it, I thought I would miss the physicality of a printed book. But that’s only a peripheral thing. Once I start reading, and lose myself in a book, the medium doesn’t matter; I forget about the medium entirely, unless it’s obtrusive or clunky.
If I turn my iPad to airplane mode, I can read comfortably on it. Ditto, even the iPhone—excellent for commuter trains when you can’t get a seat and have to stand.
HOWEVER—and it’s in upper case because it’s a big however—I still like printed books. The book, to my mind, is one of few things in the world that I call a perfect invention: that is, it’s not necessary to improve upon it.
The printed book is portable (more or less, depending), doesn’t need batteries, and is very durable.

As a young journalist, I wormed my way into a position of literary editor of the then-Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland. I interviewed Jeffrey—now Lord—Archer (a hilarious story for another time). I asked him to sign my copy of his latest paperback, First Among Equals, which he did.
Then my flatmate asked to borrow the book and took it away camping. When he brought it back, he apologised for its condition, explaining that he’d dropped it into a puddle. Because of the autograph, I still have that paperback 28 years later: it is a wreck, but it’s still readable, and none of the pages is even loose.

Archer, Crayon Files
Another reason the printed book is a perfect invention, is that it’s not seen as a security risk. You can read it anywhere, any time (unless it’s a banned book, of course). I love my Kindle for journeys, because it means I can travel lighter—and buy more books while I’m away. BUT, I still have to take a book for planes, for landing and taking off when electronic devices must be turned off.
Another perfect invention that has not been superseded by new technology is the transistor radio. This is because the batteries last forever, radios are comparatively cheap to buy, and you can listen all day and night for free. Despite all my expensive, high-tech devices, I still have a portable radio in my bathroom. It’s simple, cheap to run and it always works.
radio
It seems that whenever a new medium becomes popular, lots of people think the old medium will disappear. While sometimes this is true: the telegram, for example, was largely trumped by more convenient and cheaper phone and email services. I was surprised though, in the course of researching this post, to discover that some countries still offer telegram services, although Australia’s closed in 2011. New Zealand closed its service in 1999 but reopened it in 2003 for business customers: apparently, it’s useful for debt collection services.

But there are a lot of old media that have not been superseded by the new.  My mother says that when she was young, everyone thought TV would spell the end of films and that all the cinemas would close down. This didn’t happen.

Similarly, live theatre didn’t die when film came along, video didn’t kill the radio, digital music didn’t kill vinyl. The latter is the most interesting of all. It was said that cassettes and the “indestructible” (ha ha, what a lie) CD would put paid to vinyl records. But now, the cassette is dead, CDs are on their way out, and vinyl is back in a huge way.

What happens is that the old medium changes to accommodate the new. So, for example, we no longer have news reels before movies at the cinema.

I believe that ereaders and printed books can continue to exist side by side.
How great for students to be able to get electronic text books, which are so much cheaper and easier to carry than the printed versions.
For myself, I prefer text books and academic texts in printed form. This is because I’m constantly looking up notes, indexes and other references, and often have seven or eight books on the floor beside my desk, all open at different pages. Even though I’ve got a huge screen on my Mac desktop, I can’t quite emulate the convenience of my books-on-the-floor method.

Aesthetics is another reason printed books will remain: the world is full of collectors, and showing someone your collection of ebooks isn’t quite the same as showing them your collection of 200 vintage books on Thailand, as I have.

So let’s agree to live and let live: ebooks and printed books side by side in glorious harmony.