Wag the Book

I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.  Particularly the trinity invoked at the end of Chicago/Turabian—city: publisher, date.  Now, to their credit a number of more recent formats have dispensed with the “city” part.  Most presses have multiple offices and even those of us in the biz can’t always tell which one produced the book, which was, in all probability, printed elsewhere anyway.  Why list the city?  In this internet age, no physical copy of the book may have even been in the office.  The real problem, however, is the date.  Scholars want to know when something was published.  Publishers want to prolong the copyright (seventy years after an author’s death apparently isn’t long enough).  They can do this by using the next year as the copyright, as long as a book’s published in the latter half of the year.

Maybe you’ve had this happen too.  You put a book in your bibliography which, at the time, has a date a year later than it is in real-time.  You’re writing the future, apparently.  Or maybe publishers are just optimistic.  The fact is it’s a fiction.  Citations were invented so that you could find where an idea originated.  Dates can be important for a book that’s gone into multiple editions and you want to be sure to look in the correct one.  I had any illusions about permanency shattered when I realized that publishers routinely fix errors in books with no indication that they’ve done so.  It used to be that, if you knew how to read the printer’s key on the copyright page you could even figure out which printing of a book you held.  All of this fun disappears when we go electronic.

This sense of temporariness is problematic.  People ask me “Why don’t you get a Kindle?”  Books are an investment.  Consider iTunes.  How many times have you had to “rebuy” a song because you changed devices?  Or has your battery died right in the middle of something?  Have you tried to sell an MP3 you no longer listen to in a yard sale?  Books are physical objects—more than the words they contain.  They may be dated before they’re published, but they do have staying power.  Besides, citing an electronic source, what with broken links and all, is a tenuous business.  Those who write books want some indication that what they labor over for so long has a real presence in the world.  Even if you can’t say, precisely, when or where it was published.

In Praise of Paper

I’m working on embracing the electronic age.  No doubt it’s convenient.  And fast!  Publishing is, and always has been, a slow industry.  As connoisseurs of anything know, quality takes time.  This brings me to my paean to paper.  I generally write these blog posts on a computer.  That makes sense since they have to go onto the web and to do so they must be keyboarded.  Many of them start, however, on paper.  Sketching and free-flowing lines can become ideas, yet to draw on a computer you have to buy specialized (and expensive) equipment and software (which costs even more) to use it.  You’ll lose months of you life learning how to use said software.  In the end you’ll probably have forgotten, what?  I forget.

The other day I ran into an author who wanted maps.  In an electronic age the easiest way to get maps is to take them from the web.  Google Maps seems innocent enough.  Only it’s covered by copyright, and commercial use requires permission.  As I went through the whole permissions process I was thinking of tracing paper.  Copyright covers the execution of ideas, not the ideas themselves.  Coastlines, rivers, and mountains added through the miracle of tracing paper become the copyright of the maker.  (Don’t try this by rewriting written words through tracing paper—that doesn’t work.)  Tracing paper’s old school.  The illustrations in many older books used a similar technique.  In A Reassessment of Asherah all the illustrations were ones I drew by hand.  You can do that on paper.  The only investment is a single sheet and a pencil.  A scanner can handle the rest.

Technologists like to espouse that there’s no such thing as a page.  Authors, they aver, must learn to write without references to page numbers.  Avoid the words “above” and “below” to refer to something discussed elsewhere in the text.  This “format neutral language” (for it has to have a fancy name) is intended to ease the reading experience for the ebook.  With my Kindle software, however, there are still pages.  Don’t we call them webpages?  Don’t we bookmark both our place in Kindles and on the web?  Why then can’t we have our page numbers?  Have you ever tried to make your laptop into a paper airplane when you’re bored?  It’s often hard for progressive creatures like ourselves to admit that maybe we have had it right the first time.  Maybe reading and paper need each other.  A future without paper will be very sterile indeed.

Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

Kindling

Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Books on Wheels

Some unexpected serendipities transport you to childhood. Somewhere on Interstate 80 I passed a bookmobile. The notion felt strangely old-fashioned in this days of Nooks and Kindles. Indeed, a Kindlemobile would have been no less surprising. The idea, I recall, that someone cared enough about my little school to drive a bus full of books right up to it, made me feel special. I mean, these were books—for me! I don’t recollect ever checking any out since it was the ’60’s and everything communal had a strangely communist cast to it. We couldn’t afford many books. Indeed, growing up, we didn’t have a proper bookshelf anywhere in the house. When I began to buy books, I kept them in a cheap suitcase. The only trips I made, really, were in my mind.

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In Manhattan I occasionally see the Mitzvah Tank. New York is often thought of as one of the most literate cities around. Even here, books can come to your door. With chutzpah. Religions, at least many of them, coalesced around books. Sacred writings are among the omnipresent symbols that you’ve come into religious territory. The act of writing itself is somehow holy, even to the most secular, beyond the most cynical. We share our minds through our fingers and others are invited to see, or at least to glimpse, what might be going on inside this three-pound universe locked in our craniums.

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What would I put in a bookmobile? The other day my family began putting together a list of the influential authors in our lives. We all read quite a bit, and the list grew lengthy rather quickly. What would be in the canon of a Bible for the twenty-first century? What books would we want others to share? Ironically, many would find religious books objectionable on some level or another. The armored personnel carrier of Christian soldiers might well set us on the run. Nevertheless, with enough reading even the extremes can be viewed in perspective. On this highway I’ve found a kindred spirit, and when books are coming your way, it is a mitzvah indeed.