Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Joy of Genre

Say "Hello" to the Gutenberg Bible. It is the first book ever printed, dating back to 1455. From there, it was a small step to publishing Great Expectations and the Story of O

What could be cozier, during the cold winter months, than snuggling up with a good book beneath the warmth of a thick bed cover? Each fragile page of print is a passport to another place and time without the indignities of body scans or pat downs.

Call me old-fashioned—or obsolete, if you prefer—but when it comes to reading, I prefer a bound, paper book versus the new-fangled electronic book tablets. I understand that electronic books are quite functional, but I stare at a computer screen all day at work. So when it comes time for pleasure reading, I want the organic feel of a printed tome against my eager hands. Call it a security fixation, but the tactile experience of a book resting on my palms just seems substantial and right.

Sure, electronic books spare trees, but they also add older generations of tablets to landfills. Whereas no self-respecting citizen would ever discard a book. Rather, they would resell or donate their precious volumes to another generation of readers. Indeed, such hallowed institutions as public libraries and used book stores offer an ideal way to conserve how many trees must lay down their lives for literature.

Recently, I have taken an interest in reading antiquarian books. One reason might be because I am becoming antiquarian myself. Another is that I love to see how the English language was used in the1800s or early 1900s. These dusty volumes also allow one to be a voyeur into how people thought at a particular time in history. Sometimes their thinking was quaint and touching, sometimes small-minded and intolerant. The point is that older books offer a unique glimpse through the keyhole of past human experience. Unfortunately, antiquarian books are rarely available on electronic tablets. Only in used book stores.

Speaking of which, it is difficult to imagine how the musty splendor of a used book store could ever be replaced by a downloadable library. Wandering blissfully among stacks of unpredictable literary finds is a pleasure. It is a sensual, intellectual event.

Furthermore, sharing the joy of genres with other bibliophiles, while turning one’s head sideways to read book spines, requires a physical book store. That brand of camaraderie, that literary bonding, will never be duplicated online.

Still, I do not begrudge the electronic book. I simply do not want it to replace my beloved Gutenberg descendants. The car replaced the horse. Electricity replaced candles. Computers replaced typewriters. It would be sad to see paper-bound books go the way of eight-track tapes.

I believe there is room for both paper and electronic doorways into popular reading. In fact, while a traditional book is my preference, I gladly accept another person’s love of the Kindle and its brethren as long as they all can continue to peacefully co-exist. When you think about it, both avenues nobly preserve a love of literature and reading.

We live in a world where reality television shows, virtual activities and a materialistic mall culture are circling our leisure time like hungry wolves. With literacy rates plunging and attention spans shrinking, any form of reading, any small demonstration of critical thinking, is a cause for euphoric celebration.

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