Sam Rants About Books (…Again)

Song of the moment: The Queen and the Soldier Suzanne Vega

I actually have a purpose with this post. To rant.

I’m going to talk about books. Namely, my great fear that, with the advent of these stupid e-readers and such, the book is going to become obsolete.

Oh snap, that’s right, I just subconsciously made a Twilight Zone reference. I refuse to think it was purely accidental, seeing as I immediately recognized it after I wrote those words and this is one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.

But I digress.

Let me be the first to admit that I’m not much of a collector of physical things. I own movies, but I tossed their cases long ago and keep the hard discs I own in a binder-case-thing. Hell, most of my movies are actually on my external hard drive. And all of my music is on my computer- I don’t own a single CD. Some people (like dear Squeaks) shudder and shake with a kind of repressed rage when I say this. But I just shrug and say that I use my computer as my primary media device anyway, so why not go digital?

Besides, I move around a lot. Discs get scratched to hell too easily for my tastes.

But there’s one thing I vociferously protest going digital. Books.

It’s about so much more than just my cheapskate desire to not purchase a damn e-reader, because I could just use ol’ Ghiert here for the purpose of reading these books. No, I am against this outrageous idea for many, many reasons.

Reason 1: Eye Strain

Do you know how much more of a strain it is to read from a computer screen than from the pages of a book? The answer is a lot (yes, that’s a very scientific measurement there). At first, that doesn’t make much sense. After all, whether on a screen or on paper, you’re still focusing on words of roughly the same size, black print on a white screen (unless you are on a thirteen-year-old’s first website or a teen’s blog [or my blog, depending on the month…], with a dark background and white lettering).

What makes reading on a computer screen so much worse than reading off a printed page has to do with the definition and contrast of words on-screen vs. off-screen. Words on a computer screen are created by combinations of tiny points of light, which are brightest at the center and diminish in intensity toward their edges. Our eyes have a hard time focusing on these images. In fact, our eyes drift toward a reduced level of focusing called the “resting point of accommodation.” Which is terrible because our eyes move into this RPA, then have to struggle to refocus on the words onscreen. It’s this continuous flexing of the eye muscles that causes weariness and strain.

Printed words, on the other hand, have dense black characters with well-defined edges. These are much easier for our eyes to focus on. And easier to remain focused on, even if it sometimes doesn’t seem that way when you are attempting to read a textbook at 4 in the morning and you have an exam the next day and you’re pretty sure none of the words on the page are in any language you’ve ever encountered because all you see is this fuzzy set of blurry black lines and dear-God-in-heaven you are going to fail and fuck it psychology sucks anyway and I may just be venting some old hatred here instead of making a real point so I’ll stop.

So books put less strain on the eyes than computer screens. There’s a huge reason to avoid reading large amounts of material on your damn computer. Instead, curl up in a well-lit area (my father still yells at me for not turning the light on when I read), relax, and pick up a damn book.

Reason 2: Being Able to Read in the Bath

I’m not a person who can idly sit by and do nothing for any stretch of time. I have to be doing something, even if that something is stupid. Like Stumbling.

The problem is, I also really enjoy taking baths. And really, who doesn’t enjoy a long soak in a tub of hot water? It’s relaxing and comforting. I am a ritualistic bath-taker, too. I can’t just fill up a tub and soak. Oh no. I have to light candles and play soft jazz and dim the lights… really, I have to seduce myself.

But then I’m in the bath. Foreplay is over, the action has commenced. But that’s the issue- there is no action in a bath (…hur hur, tub sex, shut up). The whole point of a bath these days is to sit there… doing nothing… just soaking and “relaxing.”

Yeah, that lasts about five minutes before I get too twitchy and bored to stay there. That is where a book comes in handy. Give me a good novel and I’ll stay in that water until I’m shivering from the cold.

With those damn e-readers, I couldn’t do that anymore. You know, because I hear it’s a bad plan to take electronic devices near water. And I already tempt fate enough by setting my laptop (my stereo system, remember?) entirely too close to the tub when I’m bathing. Best not give me an even easier way to accidentally kill myself.

Reason 3: The Bookshelf as Room Decor

Everywhere I have lived, my bookshelves have been the focal point of my primary living area- either the living room or my bedroom. My bookshelves are massive, colorful edifices that take up entirely too much room and loudly proclaim to all visitors that I spend too much time indoors. Curse my literacy.

But books make for such wonderful decoration. Bookshelves themselves come in such a fascinating variety, and you can even design your own, unique to your tastes and living space and library collection. Add to that the colorful array of books that will fill these cases, and you have a vibrant and exciting decorative piece. Better than any lame poster or tapestry, that’s for sure.

And who can forget about coffee table books? Serving as a quick way to keep your little living room table from looking empty and sad, they are also fascinating conversation starters.

My favorite coffee table book? Belle de Jour’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (the version with Billie Piper sprawled out on the cover wearing nothing but lingerie and holding a riding crop). Squeaks’? Pink Box (about the sex industry in Japan). Now those are awesome conversation starters.

Reason 4: The Book as a Window Into a Person’s Character and Mind

We’ve all done this. We go to someone’s house for the first time, not knowing them terribly well, and they happen to leave us alone in the living room for a period of time while they change/freshen up/make dinner/whatever.

You know what I’m talking about. You’re awkwardly standing/sitting there, unwilling to turn on the television because it would seem too comfortable in this new place. So you look around the room.

And your eyes alight upon the bookcase. You drift that direction, running your fingers over the spines of the novels, taking in the authors.

More so than anything else in their house, a person’s bookshelf will reveal to you their innermost thoughts, ideals, desires, and intelligence level. It can help you find common ground with them. The bookshelf will also warn you if they are Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown fans, so that you can let yourself out quietly and never speak to them again.

Reason 5: The Smell of Books

There are a few scents in the world that are, without a doubt, simply perfect. The musty, aged smell of old books is top of that list.

See, scent is a fascinating sense. It’s not one of our strongest, but certain scents can still link themselves inextricably to certain memories. And those smells cause those memories (and associated emotions) to come flooding back to you. Scents take us back to younger days, to different times, to happier states of mind.

When we were little, everyone would tell us that reading a book was like stepping into a whole new world. And, while that’s true, what they don’t tell is of the power a book can hold over our personal timelines. How the smell of a book can propel you into the past, to days long forgotten.

Besides, books smell like knowledge. And knowledge is bitchin’.

Reason 6: Books Have Not Yet Stopped Evolving as an Artform

Most people see books as nothing more than the house for the art contained within- the writing. But they’re wrong. Books, as objects, are often artworks in and of themselves.

I’m not just referring to cover art (though there are some pretty spectacular examples out there). I’m not even referring simply to bookbinding as an artform (though it really is fascinating).

No, I’m talking about the book as a whole. Words and images and design and size and shape. The entire book can be a work of art. Illuminated manuscripts are lovely examples of word and image blending together on a page to create a truly unique artform.

And authors are experimenting with the book as art all the time. We have not gone as far as we can with the novel. Experimental novels are dependent upon the physical reality of the book as part of their execution.

Look at Mark E. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. On the surface, it looks like any other slightly oversized book. One might notice that the cover is slightly too small for the book itself, but this clever design won’t become apparent immediately.

See, from the cover itself, House of Leaves is designed to completely immerse the reader in the text. And I mean that wholeheartedly. It’s written in a unique fashion, with some bits of text getting tangled and twisted depending on the plot at that particular point in time. The book wasn’t just written to have readers hanging on every word. Oh no. It was written to excite, thrill, and terrify the reader through artful design of the book itself.

A prime example of this occurs late in the novel (I will attempt to keep this spoiler-free, because this is a book I recommend highly and think you should run out and find if you haven’t devoured it already). At the climax of the story proper, the characters are locked in a desperate chase scene through a labyrinthian set of corridors. They can’t find their way out and as they get more and more terrified, the reader does as well. How? Because the typography dissolves, Cummings-fashion, as the narrative picks up. Snippets of text appear on each page, small sections of black amidst the field of white. And these bits of text are placed at all kinds of angles and in various positions, forcing the reader to twist and turn the novel (as if they are really traversing the winding corridors). And as fear overtakes the characters, we find only a single word on each page, forcing us to flip page after page at tremendous speed as we anxiously reach for the next piece of the story, heart pounding and palms sweating.

It’s one of the most innovative and brilliant experimental novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (as is Only Revolutions, another of his books). By incorporating the book as a whole into his story, Danielewski is able to engage his readers in new and exciting ways.

The book as art isn’t dead- it’s still shifting and evolving. Don’t kill it by putting the text of novels on boring, flat screens.

Reason 7: Libraries and Bookstores Are the Happiest Places on Earth

Goddamn it, they are.

You walk into such an establishment, and you can’t help but feel smarter. There you are, surrounded by a vast opportunity for learning and personal growth and expansion of the mind. These are the voices of hundreds of authors calling out to you from row after row of shelves.

Perusing the shelves of a bookstore or library is really one of the few pure joys left in this world.

Also, libraries are gorgeous. They are often architectural marvels, with beautiful design work and rich color schemes.

Besides, where would you rather chat up a member of the opposite sex- in a bar or in the British literature section of a bookstore? I think you will be happier with the latter choice, in the long run. Because if you’ve read this far in this post, you are as much of a bibliophile as myself.

In conclusion, books are vastly superior to e-readers. Spread the word. Save the books.

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