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?
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?