“Will you read me a story?” Just how many times I asked that question of parents and grandparents during my growing-up years I’ll never know. But ask it I did, because I loved stories. In fact, I loved the whole idea of someone being able to pick up a book of pages filled with letters, and being able to understand those letters to such an extent that they told a complete story that I could then understand and enjoy.
Reading. It was one of my fondest dreams and proudest accomplishments when still a very young child. Along with learning how to write those same letters on a page myself so that they would make sense for someone else. To say that I was fascinated with books would be an understatement indeed, and I have since spent my life pursuing the adventure of devouring written matter in virtually every form in which I could find it.
Now, in my middle-age season, as I work toward getting more of my own written work published, I’ve naturally been looking into all the various media currently available for getting written material into the hands of the public. With each passing day, I’ve become even more aware of the fact that I am now living on a new planet — Computer-World. Virtually every kind of transaction and correspondence is carried on via the internet, and even a good deal of our entertainment and recreation is now often found in the hallowed halls of the computer terminal.
But I’ve been especially concerned personally with understanding the whole electronic book media, since it is gaining more ground every year. One of the young men who was working with me a few years ago in the development of a publishing enterprise threw me for a loop when we were talking about my getting two or three manuscripts to him in order for him to help critique and edit the material. He suggested that I just send the manuscripts by e-mail. I looked at him in surprise and said, “But then you’d have to print them out yourself, because you wouldn’t want to have to sit in front of the computer to read whole books.” He gave me what I call a sympathetic but condescending look, smiled sweetly, and said, “We’re a new generation . . . we read off the screen.”
I’m sure my face registered my shock, and his words stayed with me for weeks after that conversation. (Now, I think I should add here, for the sake of any writers out there who are working on editing their work on the screen: Be sure you print out a hard copy of your manuscript and do at least one edit from that. Every good editor knows that you will inevitably find errors that simply do not come to your attention on the screen.) But back to my main thought: I began to ask myself, “Is that what we’re coming to then … a time when nobody will want to pick up a book and hold it while they read the words printed on the pages?” Something deep down inside of me answered, “No.”
Shortly after that, I spent a couple of hours talking with the owner of three large independent bookstores, and I asked him if he thought there would be a total shift to electronic books soon. He said that he could see a slight swing in that direction, but he believed it would be another four or five years before it made any major difference. It’s now all those five years later, and it has made a definite difference, but it still hasn’t emptied the hardcopy bookshelves enough to see the dust on them.
So still the question has been hanging around in my head … and in my heart. I say in my heart because the idea had made me a little sad … like realizing that instead of sitting with friends and being able to touch them while you visited, you’d have to just listen to their voice over a phone line. There’s just something about picking up a book and holding it in your hands … feeling the weight of it … smoothing your fingers over the cover … whether it’s made of fine leather, soft paper, or some other material … it doesn’t matter … it’s a book. And then there’s the expectancy of opening it for the first time … or even the hundredth time … and moving through the pages, smelling the scent of paper and ink that no computer will ever be able to simulate.
Those experiences are the appetizers, leading me into the bountiful main course of the book itself, which is followed, of course, by the sense of being satisfied and replete at the end of a magnificent meal. Nothing else can quite compare to that sense of fulfillment and that gratified smile that accompanies the reading of the words, “The End” at the conclusion of a good book, and the feeling that I’ve truly completed something worthwhile when I close the back cover for the last time.
But then I thought, “That experience can’t be the only reason I prefer to hold a book while I read it.” And as I meditated on my reasons, I came to this conclusion: I enjoy television programs and movies; I see a real merit to using audio books if one has a vision problem, or is driving for long periods; and I can understand the value of e-books scrolling across my palm pilot if I’m sitting in a busy airport or bus terminal and don’t want the fuss of several heavy books to carry. However, it’s a fact that when I’m actually holding the book in my own hands and reading the material, I’m somehow absorbing what I’m reading and becoming a part of it more completely than I do when I’m just looking at the words or actions on a screen.
Then I began to think about how blessed I feel to be able to walk into a bookstore or a library and let my eyes feast on aisle after aisle of shelves covered in beautiful books. I thought about all of the excitement and joy of choosing from all of that bounty and wanting to hurry home, quickly getting other chores out of the way, so that I can sit down and open my treasure and … read.
So I’ve decided: No, I don’t believe that any other media will ever totally replace reading a real book. No other media will ever be able to give the joy and total gratification that is ours when we hold a book and let our eyes search out and devour what resides within it. Or when our children or grandchildren cuddle up with us and lean in close to see for themselvesthose printed words that make the special magic when we “read them a story.”
So now, although I’m going with the flow – Facebooking, blogging, online news reporting, and formatting my own books for digital readers – I’m also committing myself to help the “new generation of screen-readers” to discover and understand the unique satisfaction and thrill of picking up a book and reading it. I’m making it my job to encourage them not to get so involved with trying to get in touch with their computer that they get out of touch with books. Even those friends of mine who feels that man’s best friend is the “mouse” can benefit from taking a break and picking up a book.
So let me offer this personal invitation to one and all. Take some time to visit your nearest library or bookstore and wander through the aisles of beautiful books. Choose one; take it home; sit down in a comfortable chair and prop your feet up. Smooth your hands over the cover a few times; smell that sometimes new — sometimes musty — but always unique scent of a book. Open the cover, and turn the page. Give yourself the gift that no one else can give you: read a REAL book!