Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reading rites

Amazon’s launch of the Kindle got a lot of people thinking about e-books – but what matters to me in this debate is the light that gadget casts on actual books, what they are for, and why people, mainly me, read. I’ll say it now, I am a fool for books. There have been days in my youth – mainly as a student when I had less caution than sense and much less money – when I bought a book rather than lunch. Sad, I know – evidence of addiction but it has to be said that there are worse vices.

One of the most devastating lines I ever read was in a New Scientist feature (no idea which one) which worked out the number of books someone could read in a lifetime. The idea that there was a cap on the number of volumes I could get through hit me hard – even though I knew there was no chance I could read everything. But I’d like to have thought that I’d do my share. No chance. Copyright libraries grow by about 12.5km of shelf space per year. By comparison I get through about 20cm of books a month. At most 2.5m per year. Give or take. So I’m falling way, way behind.

But that’s all to the point. I think the Kindle has its ethic the wrong way around. Which book I buy is important – but it’s the book, the physical thing, that I want. I really don’t get on with libraries – possession is ten tenths of the law as far as I’m concerned. I don't want every book just ones that become important for who knows what reason. The trouble is that I don’t know which ones they will be until I read them and the crowd of circumstances assails me and turns that title into a must keep rather than a meh. They become part of who I am – in quite a profound way. I suspect that it’s the same for any serious reader. The collection is the thing – it’s part of what you have become. And that's about comfort not convenience.

Once I know which books are important then I might want to tote around copies and dip into them now and again but Kindle, and its ilk, don’t cater for that. They’d force me to buy it in both formats. And I don’t want that. In buying a book I’d like to buy the right to read it in lots of formats – I might even pay a tiny bit more just so I can. But pay twice? Sorry, but I’m not in the mood to burn money.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hill start

So, anyway. For days in the run up to my 40th birthday I was nagged by a feeling to re-read The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. Why, I don’t know. But I was in need of a book and I’ve learned to trust those impulses so I gave in. It’s a great book, well worth a re-visit, but I didn’t know why until I got to Chapter 13. And there it was. The reason to re-read it. Lying there like a newborn, expecting nothing but your admiration. The epigraph. Every man over forty is a scoundrel - George Bernard Shaw. Which made me feel great. Am I a scoundrel? No need to ask. GBS has decided for me. So I bathe in the warmth of that pronouncement for a happy hour or so, but then doubt sets in. Why did he say that? Where did he write it? I don’t know much Shaw beyond the names of some his plays and, after all, there are so many books and I have so few eyes. But it turns out that the phrase comes from Maxims for Revolutionists (1903) and is intended to make young revolutionaries distrust those who are into their fifth decade. Not a scoundrel because they will seduce your sister but because they are so steeped in the status quo. But because I'm keen to extract a grain of comfort from it I can claim that I'm still dangerous to someone. So, all in all, bitter-sweet really. Just like turning 40.