An E-Book is Not a Book, In Which I Launch the Slow Book Movement

So everyone’s all a-twitter about e-books. And why not? As a species, we’re like magpies, squawkily flocking from one over-hyped shiny new thing to the next.  Gunpowder? Railroads? Lightbulb? Telegraph? Telephone? Airplanes? E-mail?  Shiny!  Marry the age of consumerism with the age of gadgets and the pace e-quickens. Every six months now, someone tosses a new shiny thing out there into the public square, and we’re all over it like pigeons on popcorn.   Ooh, ooh ipod, ilike, iphone, iwant, ipad, ineed, gimme that shiny new thing.

I’m not a saboteur, much.  I Twitter, I FB, I LMAO at times.   In fact, I was watching a video just the other day touting all the great things that an e-reader can do.   Can’t find the link, sorry. But its promises were great: a little red dot would follow my reading progress, and when I hit the word “bird,” say, up would pop a little picture of the bird in the margin. Wow! Or if I might want to know what a word meant, I could just click a doo-hickey and up would pop the definition. Or a voice would tell me how to pronounce a word! I have to confess that for a moment I was nearly taken in.

But what if I wanted to just stare at the little bird picture for awhile before I even started to read the page? What if I wanted to flip through the pages to look at all the little pictures before I even started to read the book? And why should everything be so E-Z?

Ah, the pleasures to be found in looking up words in a, you know, “physical” dictionary. Sure, I can click on the little button, but if I look up, say, “relevant” in my Random House Webster’s College, I get to not only look at the picture on the page anytime I like (which is a drawing of “relief”), but I get to visit the neighbors: “relentless,” “reliable” and “relic.” All of which seem relevant to this here blog post.

(On the very same page of my dictionary, I also find the word “relaxin,” which I learn is a “polypeptide hormone” but which I also hope describes my afternoon plans.)

Which leads me to the pleasures of browsing. Say I walk in to a library looking for a book about water buffalo.   Then say all that thinking about water buffalo makes me thirsty, so I start wandering around (under my own non-EZ steam), looking for water, and I take a short cut down a physical aisle filled with books, and what do you know, there’s Balzac!  Not having ever read Balzac, I take him home and fall in love with Eugenie Grandet. Who knew?   Well, that’s really the point, eh.   The pleasures of serendipity.

The “pleasure” argument proffered in defense of old-fashioned books is often pooh-poohed. You may think, this woman is clearly over 50. You may roll your eyes. But here’s what I’m thinking this morning. We live in our bodies and the sensory world is rich, why not revel in it? Why not celebrate the sensory pleasure of the book? Why not flock to the book as object, as something we take in not only with our eyes, but our hands and our noses—because who doesn’t love the smell of paper and mustiness and bindings and glue? It’s hard to get high on e-words.

Sure, the soul of a book is a bunch of words, so who cares what the “text delivery system” looks like? I do. I don’t want just the soul of a book, I want its body. I want its body to rub up against other bodies on the shelf. I want to caress the spine and hold it in my hand while I’m reading at the beach. And ten years from now, or fifty, when fifty generations of e-readers are not decomposing in the landfill, I want to take that book down from my library shelf, and when the sand falls out from between the pages, that whole day will come rushing back.   I will feel the sand on my wrinkled old skin, and I will smell the sea.  And the sun and the sand and the memory of being young will all be tangled up with those papery pages, the story that they tell and the way that they feel in my hands.

So, I hereby launch the Slow Book Movement, to be rolled out in parts, since that is in keeping with slowness.  It is not shiny, it is not new, it is decidedly old-ladyish. But it tastes better than e-books, it’s more nutritious, and I got time.

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15 Responses to “An E-Book is Not a Book, In Which I Launch the Slow Book Movement”

  1. Mike Says:

    You’re right throughout, of course, but that penultimate paragraph is itself something to breathe in, exhale, wrap about your shoulders and snuggle into.

  2. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Okay, well, I should have checked. Other Slow Book people are out there: http://www.slowmovement.com/slow_books.php. Sign me up!

  3. Alice Eckles Says:

    I love book-books, and started out as a book artist rather than an author. I can’t exactly join the slow book movement though, because I believe it is good to have many alternatives for getting the word out and taking it in. Real books with pages, glue, dog ears, and mementoes between the pages are here to stay, just like painting never died. At the same time there is something wonderful about the new opportunities that e-books provide for writers and readers, not to be shunned.

  4. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Thanks, Mike and Alice, for jumping in here. Alice, e-books are certainly an alternative. I’m not so confident that physical books won’t die in the wake of the e-reader’s rise to prominence; anytime something becomes a commodity more than an art, the market has far too much to say on the matter of what survives. I guess we can always take to our monastic quarters and start copying them out by hand. I got some magic markers ready just in case.

  5. ruthseeley Says:

    What I hear you saying is that eBooks are for linear, not lateral thinkers, and I think you’re absolutely right on that score. I’ve had to disable the ‘if you liked this, you’ll like that’ feature on online book purchasing sites for precisely this reason – the algorithms amazon.com and other online book etailers use are way way too linear. Just because I bought a book by a particular author doesn’t mean either that I liked it or that I want to read all their other works (the algorithms work particularly badly for fiction; they seem slightly more sophisticated for non-fiction).

  6. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Yes, Ruth, I like the meandering, pondering, serendipitous possibilities of life and books. It’s why, I suppose, I’m so drawn to the essay. It’s about discovery, complexity, digression, the entanglement of many things on many levels. I like my book life to be as messy and rich as essays.

  7. professorofpop Says:

    How long before books like newspapers sprout advertising, and not just in the back pages for the author’s next or last thing? Nice post!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Well, I suppose if we have to have ads in books in order to keep printing them, I’d put up with it. Maybe we should just rent out body space for advertising: forehead adverts, for example. Or midriff marketing.

  8. sarahristine Says:

    Awesome. Though I do agree that it is probably a good thing to have many alternatives to “get” people reading, I never have and probably never will read an e-book. Unless, of course, someone burns all my real books. But then, I live in rural Idaho, so they’d have to find me first…..

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Sarah–Great to see you here. And whatever you’re doing in rural Idaho, I hope you have a good public library. (What are you doing up there, btw?)

      • sarahristine Says:

        I still ask myself the same question sometimes…. 🙂 We ended up here in an attempt to move closer to family. We were living in Albuquerque when we got married in 02 and then my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and we began having babies soon afterward, so we waited until we found a good career move for Tom, and this is where it brought us. I was raised in MT, so it really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for me to be here, but some days I REALLY miss the coast and the Bay Area. At the same time, we are in a very young college town that is full of lovely people and lots of young families, so it’s probably a great location for us for that reason. And we DO have a decent library and a lot of culturally-minded people, as well. 🙂 I love your Slow Book Movement, by the way!

  9. Marilyn Says:

    Tracy,
    Oh, yes, I’m in! I found this April post (and your blog) only now, thanks to Dean’s office blurb about your being quoted in the Guardian. Can you believe that this is the first (ever!) reply I’ve left on a blog … any blog? So I will proudly join you as an equally old-fashioned lady in that regard. ( I use chalk in my classrooms, not powerpoint. I bring a taped-together paperback book I struggled through first year of college to my first day of classes now, to show all the words I did not know at 18, but circled in pencil, looked up in the giant old dictionary at the university library, and scrawled definitions in the margins …)

    I love the bodily materiality of your forward-looking musings: pages, sand, sun, sky, skin. Felt a twinge of paradox reading such a passionate plea for physical books online … and yet, each medium has its own draws, charms, mysteries and biases. (Reminds me of a favorite book, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.) In any case, we do have an iPad, but I don’t read on it, and I desperately hope to be able to hold and read and keep bodily books into my future, and that of my daughters.

    Thanks for this.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Dear Marilyn,
      It’s lovely to read your thoughtful comments here. “Bodily materiality”–what a beautiful phrase, and it’s exactly right. Advanced electronic and digital technology makes it easier all the time to act as though we live outside the natural, physically embodied world. It’s no trivial or nostalgic concern, I think. The physical traces of our intellectual and creative education matter–as in the pages of your old, taped-together book, or in the shelves of our book collections and libraries. I remember my own children discovering books simply because they were physically present and available at home; browsing the library shelves in the public library was always an adventure of discovery. It’s hard to imagine that rich experience ever happening if all the books had been electronically stored in a machine.

      Happy reading to you and your little girls.

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