The Changing Face of Books

Kage Baker just missed e-readers. She would probably have liked them; she was certainly delighted to be able to sell her own works online, and she was an enthusiastic user of sites like GoogleBooks and The Gutenberg Project.

I was seriously considering an early Nook or Kindle for her, when she died. As it was, I waited only a year or so before getting my own – and I’ve updated to a Kindle Fire since then, and so passed on the other electronic toy to Kimberly. Who is now as addicted as I am, bwa ha ha.

While ordering books for my nephew Michael (so much cheaper and easier to get online than in the college bookstore!) I also discovered how to link the two Kindles. And then link them to the same Kindle app on desktops, laptops, phones … what we have now is the electronic equivalent of the New Books Place that we all shared when we were kids. One enormous “place” that the entire family of readers can access to see what has most recently been added. Old favourites, classics, updates in series one or another of us follows: now, this is the future of my dreams! A magic purse full of books!

Kimberly first became aware of the Great Electronic Shelf when she commented one evening that her copy of a favourite old book had vanished, and she didn’t know where. Three minutes later, it was ordered on my Kindle and showing on hers. Behold, Bride of the Rat God immediately to hand! Enthusiasm ensued.

However, real physical books are by no means obsolete; at least, for dedicated readers like my family. Some books must be possessed, to be held in loving hands and caressed. I have taken to ordering both the hard copies and e-copies of Sir Terry Pratchett, for instance: one for the home library, and one for the library in my purse. I recently acquired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur in hardcover, because Professor Tolkien’s books must be savoured first in corporeal form. And I have slowly been acquiring Stephen King’s works in e-books as well, at least partially in self-defense – his books tend to be freaking enormous! It’s nice to read them without courting carpel tunnel damage.

However, Mr. King’s most recent effort was deliberately not issued in an e-version. It’s called Joyland, published by Hard Case Crime, and in a deliberate act of dramatic verisimilitude, it’s only available as a cheesy paperback. It’s definitely cool – a redheaded young lady with physically impossible decolletage and Bakelite bracelets matching her emerald-green spaghetti-strap frock, pressed up against a poster for a fortune teller. She’s on the verge of screaming at something horrific off-camera, and is obviously no better than she should be … a neon-lit carnival burns in the background, and she is clutching something in one hand that might be an old-fashioned camera. Or a 1920’s phone she tore off a wall. Or an original-issue Geiger counter. Or a DIY theremin.

Whatever she’s holding, it’s the size of a suitcase; and the way she’s holding it, it’s either glued to her hand or equipped with anti-gravity. I can hardly wait to find out what it’s meant to be. Or if the scene even shows up in the narrative; cheesy paperbacks were infamous for covers that were purer imagination that the plots inside them.

And this, Dear Readers, is a perfect illustration of the Janus-faced publishing industry. On one hand, our new and many-headed family library, where we can share electronic ink and store books in a handy pocket dimension. On the other … books produced as deliberate works of art and ambiance, where everything from the primary-colours covers to the sweet musk of the cheap paper pages creates the desired ambiance.

Of course, it does mean we only have one copy. And both Kimberly and I have been waiting, drooling and moaning like zombies, for Joyland.  In past years, when there were even more of us, wars broke out over this kind of thing: I actually bought two copies of the last Henry Potter novel  – in our putative adulthood – so Kage wouldn’t smother me in my sleep to get her hands on it.

But in an act of true sororal generosity, Kimberly has told me, “You read it first. You’re faster than me.” Although she added a codicil: “So start reading NOW!”

And that’s what I’m gonna do.