Book Phantoms

I am the granddaughter of a book collector. He had so many books that when he married my step-grandmother, he had the side verandah of her family house, a house in Vaucluse where she had been born, closed in for his study. Then he installed Compactus shelving to hold his library of maritime and crime history. The steel tracks for this were embedded in timber boards older than he was.

When I stayed with them during the summer holidays, it was my delicious fear that one day he would fail to see me hiding in later letters of the alphabet. He’d swing the steel frames down to search for something in E – F and squash me flat. It would take days before I was found in N – P and then I’d slip to the floor, a pressed girl like one of the faded flowers I found in my secondhand Billabong books.

I am also the daughter of a secondhand bookseller. When I was six my mother, with my father’s advance royalty for a contribution to a book on Australian opera singers, bought Lloyds Bookshop in Brisbane. I grew up surrounded by books. Visitors to our house would pull up a carton of books to perch on. Books to be marked or catalogued piled up on the dining room table between Christmas’s. One year we moved a pile of these to discover a perfect reverse lace pattern in grey bookdust of the previous Christmas’s tablecloth. My horrified mother tried to swear me into secrecy but who can keep a grey dust tablecloth secret? I never took cleaning my room seriously again.

When I worked in the shop, I went through a period of collecting some books myself. My best volume was a limited edition of the stories of Katherine Mansfield with delicate illustrations by Marie Laurencin. I dreamt of a calm room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, curly woodwork and the kind of deep leather chairs the old-fashioned children curled up in throughout my childhood reading.

This is not the background of someone ready to embrace the dull, aluminum ereader, no matter how classy the leatherette cover. There can be no gilt edge, ½ leather, full col. litho frontis. dec. endpapers, ed. limited to 200, no. 150 and signed by author on my Sony Touch PRS-350, glare-free touch-screen, zoom in features, built-in dictionary and handy stylus.

Note, I said my Sony Touch. Yes, I have embraced the ereader. It’s handbag-sized. I can download library books which magically do not collect overdue fines. I can travel with a library of unread books and not pay excess baggage. If I’m away from home and someone recommends a nvoel to me, I can, more often than not, buy it when I get back to my hotel after dinner and start reading it that night. (I should just say at this point that I deliberately bought a Sony Touch because at that time they didn’t have wifi access. This was to counter a certain tendency to impulse buying. The Accountant approved.)

My book buying is not at all limited to ebooks – I buy new and secondhand books and still borrow dead tree books (overdue fines attached) from my local library. Everyone I know does this. And nearly everyone I know buys the dead tree version of an ebook they’ve loved and want to own. I mean to really own, not just have the words on a screen, as pearlised and glare-free as that screen is.

There’s a reason for this. We’ve all suffered blue screens of death. Collections of music, photographs and whole chapters of new novels disappear with the failure of a chip we can’t even identify that lurks somewhere under the new-fangled typewriter now being looked at by some dude wearing a black t-shirt featuring a joke you don’t understand and a sorrowful expression that is all too comprehensible.

But, as importantly, we’re used to analysing people by the contents of their bookcases. How often have you turned up at a new friend’s house and scanned her bookshelves, looking for familiar titles, checking out the range of subject matter, coveting a volume here, dismissing another there?

An illustration by Walter Crane

My books tell me and others who I am. They chart a life of reading. Despite being the daughter of a bookseller, I still own a couple of books from my childhood. Books I carted up and down the east coast of Australia, into relationships, marriages and many different houses. If you cared, The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell and Patricia Lynch’s Bookshop on The Quay are clues both to the child I was and the woman I have become. I don’t believe that we’re ready yet to make the same judgements from titles stashed on an electronic device.

Ebooks for me are strangely ephemeral. I love the fact that I can write notes in their margins – something I can’t bring myself do on paper books. I love the diversity of titles I can range through on a whim and the ease with which they can bought or downloaded. But they have no physical presence. They are book phantoms.

Perhaps epublishing will eventually manage to turn those book phantoms into real books, but I doubt it. I think instead we’re going to see a revival of the small artisan press – the book as both text and artifact.

Some of their production values will be different from the books published by the Woolfs at Hogarth Press or Nancy Cunard at The Hours Press or The Black Sun Press run by the Crosbys but their intentions will be the same – to provide finely-made, high-quality, hand-manufactured products of works that might otherwise by overlooked by mainstream publishers.

We’ll catalogue these on social media sites – handmade ppr dust, col. dig. photo frontis, limited ed. of 250, no. 102, signed by author and bookartist.

I’ll be in that leather armchair near the window. Will I meet you there?

Photograph by her daughter Helen Kempton

Catherine Bateson is an award-winning poet and writer for children and young adults. Her writing is like her –  gentle and tender and really really funny sometimes as well as being devastatingly insightful. Her latest collection of poetry, which I loved, is a striking collection called Marriage for Beginners, published by John Leonard Press. She also has a new book for children, Star, just released by Omnibus Books. She currently teaches Professional Writing and Editing at GippsTAFE and is writing a fantasy verse novel, among other things. She originally bought an ereader because she could download knitting patterns and the poems she was learning during her year of memorising poems on to it. When she was a little girl, the idea that you could slip a whole library into your back pocket would have amazed and delighted her. It still does. You can see some of her knitting and read some of the poems from her verse novel on her blog: Catty READS, Catty WRITES, Catty KNITS!

I loved her take on the e-Volution of books, as I am sure you will do as well.

18 Responses

    1. Heather Giles says:

      You will certainly meet me there Catherine.Nothing at this stage can compare to sitting in a comfy chair and reading to young children, the turning of pages, the passing of the book from reader to listener, to look over the illustrations together, the sharing. But it is also exciting and hard to imagine what the future holds as the ebook and digital stories will not be in the format that we know now that has been more or less copied from a book to ereader, page to page. The way ahead has infinitesimaI possibilities…. Absolutely love the Walter Crane illustration and so many other illustrators from that era like Edmund Dulac.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        I do agree, Heather – and I’m interested in seeing where the ebook goes & its possibilities. And I’m sure that some of the epublications will push artistic boundaries. But will they be as collectable as a small press, limited edition?I don’t know – and that’s why the future is exciting!

    2. Emily Craven says:

      “They have no physical presence. They are book phantoms”

      I love the above line so much, I can tell you are a poet! It is a wondrous vision and poetic in the fact that stories start as phantoms in our mind, fragments that aren’t solid and can be gone in a minute. Ideas have no physical presence, and in all fiction, fantasy in particular, the setting of the story does not even truly exist. A particular chip dies and you lose the textual representation of the story, a fire takes your books and frees their words with flame. In both cases, the written or digital book can be gone in the second, but the story, that collection of ideas, themes and emotions still floats in your head and hopefully is not truly lost.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Emily, your comment reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and the importance of keeping the stories alive in whatever form you can!

    3. Deb says:

      I want your Grandfather’s library. Space saving! I have shelves and boxes of books. I even have some stored in those green environmentally friendly shopping bags. A shelf that I could slide open to reveal yet more books would be a dream come true.

      The lines, “They have no physical presence. They are book phantoms”, really touched a chord with me. I think that the ebook’s lack of a physical presence is what keeps me from jumping in and trying them. I know you have the reader, but it’s just not a book. I can imagine all these little bits of words floating around in space, then gathering into a text on a screen, and it makes me laugh, but really, it’s still not a book. I need to get into the web world a little more I guess.

      The only thing to say about the Blue Screen of Death is…BACKUP!

      • Emily Craven says:

        Deb you might be interested to read Simon Groth’s take on “what is a book”.

        http://www.futureofthebook.org.au/2012/07/10/bookcontentbook/

      • Deb says:

        Thanks for that Emily, I did enjoy his take on what a book might be or might become. I really think it does mean different things to different people and while I’m not yet a convert to the e-book format, I think I will be while this discussion is going on.

        I have also been known to read the phone book in times of desperation and I have a great copy of the CWA cookbook. Now that’s a book every house should have.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Emily – what a great idea! I loved hearing about this – thank you for posting the link.

      • wow that was an amazing link, Em- will you offer it to the links page? I want to tweet it too.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        I haven’t quite got books stored in shopping bags yet – but when we had the bookshop we knew a collector with a great storage method. He had hammocks strung above his bed and he just piled new acquisitions in these. From memory he didn’t collect rare books, but rather books he planned to read one day, when he retired.

    4. Jo Turner says:

      Sometimes I feel like I am reading my own story, in your post. It always shocks me (I really don’t know why) when I see such similarities. My grandfather had a library too, although instead of a compactus he had specially made wooden shelves and had all his non-fiction categorised into specific sections, much like you would see in any library, with little wooden carved signs for each section. When he died my mother tried to keep all the books, but alas with a little house, at least half were lost to the ravages of storage in a back shed, where water, mice plagues and time took their share of the proceeds. When we moved to a bigger house, I lost a book for over ten years. I had this enormous book of the Horse – a beautiful thing, white and glossy, and it simply disappeared. I have no idea where it was this whole time, except that one day earlier this year I walked into the room to find it sitting there on the top of a pile of boxes, like it had never been missing in the first place. I suppose you could never lose an e-book like that given that it is easy to replace, but the re-discovery of it could never be replaced by the purchase of an e-book. Having said that, finding some older books now in digital form, is wonderful, knowing I can re-read some older books (if it available), without having to search through the stacks of an uncategorised and unsorted library (my grandfather really had the right idea with those signs).

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Jo – the signs and the bookcases sound wonderful! And I do know what you mean about the unexpected reappearances of lost books – suddenly they are there. Or, the other thing that happens to me, is that I walk into a secondhand bookshop and there’s the book I’d just regretted having sold or given away years before.

        I think I want signs for my bookcases now!

    5. Maureen says:

      My brother and I were both discussing the potential rise of small house publishers specialising in carefully made, limited edition books yesterday. It’s definitely an area that a smart entrepeneur could potentially make money out of! There is still an awful lot of sentimentality left over for the physical book and the book as a collector’s item.

      One of the things your post made me think about Catherine, is the way we collect physical books, and the way we collect ebooks. I may just be showing my luddite-ness here but with my kindle, I can’t figure out how to sort my books beyond alphabetically. I can’t arrange them by genre or by type. That is one of the best things about making your own collector’s library of all of your personal favourites! You can arrange them however you like, in whatever way suits you best. Bookshelves and personal libraries say a lot about a person.

      There is a sense of possession about the whole thing. A sole kindle on a stand or shelf, regardless of how many books it contains, can’t indicate to a person how many books you own, and which ones you value most. A physical bookshelf filled with physical books can. Which comes back to your “phantom books” analogy- an amazing metaphor for ebooks. Though as Min pointed out a few posts back, not everyone wants to be judged by their books either!

      On the topic of the blue screen of death- with ereaders like kindle which are owned by one corporation, it makes you wonder what a big boss could do if they wanted- I mean if they wanted us all to stop reading a genre, they could technically remove that from your ereader overnight. Or what about political ebook hackers? Will they be a possibilty? Or if an author was a bit too out there- so much concentration of publication in one area could see mass censorship? I don’t know… just wondering…

      I’d also like to add to Emily’s comment where she states that paper books can be destroyed by fire and ebooks by blue screen of death- I’d just like to point out that the chances of a fire taking out everyone’s paper books overnight is very slim… the chances of a blue screen of death due to hackers etc… wouldn’t that be a far higher chance which would affect more people because of the direct link to your ereader through the monopolising ebook corporation? It would be far harder to destroy everyone’s paper books to my mind.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Maureen – I agree with you about arranging ebooks – I know there should be a way of creating ‘libraries’ but I haven’t sorted it out yet. And I am constantly rearranging my physical books – so, one year I had everything by the same author together – whether it was poetry or memoir or fiction. Then I decided to go back to my old separating fiction from biography from poetry. Then I decided to take it a step further and separate short story collections. At one stage I felt children’s books and young adult novels should be in general fiction….I get quite a lot of pleasure from making these decisions and they are, I would have to say, about physically handling the book. I find books I’d forgotten I owned, ones I’d been meaning to read, others I’d earmarked to give away. Then there’s that lovely moment when you step back and all the spines are neatly lined up and you know the books are back in alphy order and all is right with your immediate world….

      • Jo Turner says:

        If you are having trouble sorting your books on your e-reader – try seeing if it has a collection option. Assuming you have a Kindle, you can allocate books to a “collection” and multiple ones as well. The only trouble is that you have to do it manually for each book, and is also not an option for those with iPads and the software. My “collections” range from groups according to author, and according to genre. If you have the time to sort them, its certainly worth it.
        This has also reminded me that last year, curious about the whole e-book development thing, I decided to read some novels on the subject, including “The Book” by M Clifford (purpursely released as an e-book only) and “The Last Bookstore in America” by Amy Stewart, to see if they could shed any light on what they thought was the biggest impact on the physical book, and what might save it. I even wrote a book review on both of them, that sadly concluded that neither gave me the answers I wanted, but perhaps expecting answers was something I had over-anticipated. I even submitted my review to a favourite site, but I think they stopped reviewing books by then. Now it has now home, but I am glad this site was done to make me think about it all again!

    6. I loved this post and all of the comments which reminded me yet again of the pleasure I get out of aspects of handling and having print books, but Em’s link about what a book is was wonderful to read- I love the way the essays and comments on this site are making my centre and certainties shift an shift and shift again. And, as I had hoped, I am learning SO much!

    7. Ah, books as physical objects! When John and I had only been married four years,hence had a library just of our two separate collections combined, we had to move from rural Bathurst back to metropolitan Melbourne. Having a carrier from the city, we just filled out a form – sofas 2; double beds 2; single beds 1; table 1 etc etc. John had just moved his tertiary library and knew exactly how to calculate it: ‘Boxes of books 28′. When they came on the prescribed day, the truck was tiny. “We didn’t believe anyone could have 28 boxes of books – you must have got it wrong!’. So they had to go back to Melbourne and fetch a bigger truck. The two day’s delay was such a pain!

      We laugh about that now. I wonder how many boxes it would be, forty years of joint book-buying on? Periodically John suggests new bookshelves, but really the problem is deeper than that – it’s the walls to stand them on, that we don’t have. In fact at three our son didn’t believe the house had ever been bookless. ‘But where did our books come from? The books we’ve had forever? The ones that the builder builded!’ – A house clearly had doors, windows, bricks and books – everywhere, always.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        ha! Virginia – I’ve had similar consternation from removalists who have rolled their eyes are the number of book boxes!