Friday, August 22, 2014

Print Vs Digital in the Summer of 2014

Evidently it's a trend: forsaking printed books for digital readers.  Will it last?  It seems to me that's an open question still, partly because there are yet only a few ways to "acquire" digital books (and books from Amazon for their Kindle are apparently still under Amazon's control, so it's not clear to me who actually owns them.)  On the other hand, there are many ways to see and acquire physical books, as just some of my summer's reading demonstrates.

Publishers and authors would prefer books purchased at full price when they are newly published .  Lots of books are in fact purchased that way, even if some time has elapsed since the pub date.  Right now local bookstores are busy selling books assigned in college and university classes, as well as the latest selections of local book clubs.

But the ecology of printed books is larger and more various, though book publishers and authors eventually benefit.  That ecology includes libraries (public and school,) used book stores (physical and online) and "sale books" (often remainders) that can often be found on a table in and outside regular bookstores.

When I lived in Cambridge I bought a high percentage of my books from the many sale tables.  These included books I bought because of magazine stories I was working on.  In fact, I found books I would never have seen otherwise, that became important to what I was writing.  Even The Malling of America benefited--sometimes providing me with names of people in relevant fields I then sought out and interviewed.  It's uncanny how the right books would turn up, or really that I would notice them, so that I often began researching at the sale tables. Serendipity was one of my main research techniques.  And it happened again recently--I have been acquiring apocalyptic tales for a project about the future and had been looking in vain for a copy of J.G Ballard's The Drowned World.  Then one day there it was, on the Northtown Books sale table.

This summer however, my sale table book I acquired for pleasure--Diane Keaton's autobiographical Then Again, that one of my old Boston colleagues (Janet Maslin, now reviewing for the NYTimes) picked as one of her ten best of the year.  I'm enjoying it, not only for the content but for the perspective it suggests on my family and life.  (Cats are characters in this book, and it reminded me that around the time of Annie Hall,  I once stopped to observe a cat and her kittens in the unlikely location of Greenwich Village, only to look up and see Diane Keaton next to me.  By the time I turned to the two women I was with--both chattering away about Village Voice stuff, neither having noticed her--she and her male companion had fled across the street and were gone...)

I've been using "Captain Future" as my Internet screen name since I began fooling around online a decade or more ago, so I naturally got interested in the Captain Future stories by Edmund Hamilton (which I was not specifically aware of when I invented the screen name.  Of course I assumed I wasn't the first to think of it.  It was just appropriate--playful yet pointed.)  A few years ago I bought a facsimile of a 1942 issue of the Captain Future pulp magazine.  But when I was browsing for something else entirely at a local used bookstore I noticed that somebody had sold their collection of Captain Future paperback reissues.

These were originally published from 1939 to 1942.  Popular Library reissued them as paperbacks, probably several times. (Without the original cover illustrations alas.)  The ones I found were from the late 1960s.  There were seven, and (thanks in part to credit accumulated by selling other books there) I got them all.  I've read four now, including Calling Captain Future (which records that in 1940, a quarter century before Star Trek, Captain Future had a stun setting on his ray gun.)  The prose is shaky, the stories are more like murder mysteries in space, but they have their moments, and the characters Hamilton invented would presage many science fiction icons of later decades.  They are historically interesting too for the kinds of technologies they posit, including all kinds of variations on "atomic," which provide a certain nostalgic hilarity.

Libraries were my first resource for finding and reading books, and they are still important to me, particularly now the university library.  Though I got my copy of Northrop Frye's The Educated Imagination as a used paperback years ago, I reread it again recently and was stunned by the breadth, perception and elegance of this book on contemporary society as well as literature.  So I looked to the university library for any Frye books I didn't have or hadn't read, especially any that weren't only about literary matters, and found The Modern Century.  It's another short book composed from talks, in this case on the occasion of Canada's centennial in 1967.

Another astonishing book!  So I looked online and found a used copy, ordered it, and now have my own: a first edition hardback of The Modern Century with dust jacket.

 After I read that, I tried the library again.  Among the books I took out was a collection of Frye's book reviews and short pieces called Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature.  I saw pretty quickly that it was another book that would repay ownership.  So I again found an online copy, and here the library and the used books store come together, though with a melancholy twist.

The copy I acquired is a 1978 hardback, formerly from a library.  This is pretty common for used books purchased online.  This copy--a very good one--has a somewhat sad history.  It is from the Barat College library.  I looked Barat up, and found that it was a small college in a leafy and wealthy suburb of Chicago, but the college had gone bankrupt and eventually dissolved in 2005.  This particular book seems to have been taken out of circulation somewhat earlier, in 2003 (though it had gone bankrupt by then.)

 Barat was a Catholic college that evidently emphasized the arts.  But not, it seems, literary criticism. The reason that this book is in such very good shape is that it appears never to have been taken out in its quarter-century stay.  There is not a single mark on the Date Due sticker in the back.  Assuming it was acquired in 1978 (from the University of Chicago press), that's 25 years without a borrower, and perhaps without a reader--this book by one of the great minds of the 20th century.  However it's unread no more, because now it's mine.

A happier book story involving a library is a book I read with great pleasure this summer.  It is a novel for children called The Tune Is In The Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace, an author I didn't know.  She's an American writer of historical fiction but mostly children's fiction, from the late twenties into the sixties.  She's most famous for her Betsy-Tacy series.

This novel of nearly 200 pages, published in 1950 (by Thomas Crowell), is about a little girl, probably in the first decades of the 20th century, who is inadvertently left at home when her mother goes to seek after her missing aviator father. They live in the country and while they're away Annie Jo is adopted into the local society of birds.  A magical hummingbird shrinks her down to bird size.  It is a very charming tale (the title is from Emily Dickinson) that builds fancifully on the knowledge of specific bird species that a little girl must have had in that time and place, but would be foreign to children today.

This book has been around me for decades.  I'm pretty sure I scooped it up from my childhood home when I took away the rest of my own books there before the house was sold.  It may have belonged to one of my sisters, especially since the markings indicate it came from the school system that they (but not I) attended.  However, it's possible that I acquired it myself at a used book store in the area--the title would have appealed to me, and it is why I've kept it.  But I only read it this summer.

Books are physical objects that can last a long time, that can be passed around from library to bookstore, from sibling to sibling,  from Illinois to California, and from one decade to another.  It's hard to see how digital books will match that utility and magic.

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