Judging a Book

Maybe it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, although personally I think you sometimes can. But I’m quite sure it’s true that you can judge a person by their bookshelves: the number of shelves as well as the books on them.

And you can get an impression of someone from what they’re reading. I’m guilty of the possibly deadly sin of occasionally trying to impress with a title. If someone in particular is coming to visit I might carefully leave a current or controversial or difficult-sounding volume lying ever-so-casually where they can’t miss it.

In both respects the advent of the e-book raises a major problem. How can people judge me by my bookshelves if my recent purchases are stored in cyberspace? What can I leave lying on the couch to show my visitor that I’m across the latest solution to the world’s problems, or that I’m trying to learn Finnish?

On the other hand, if I continue to buy conventional books and my shelves are full of the latest titles, won’t that in itself provide a judgement by bookshelf? I’ll seem hopelessly old-fashioned, still buying those hard-copy versions.

But these compelling factors weren’t the real reason for my initial hesitation, my early resistance to e-books. I thought, just as I heard many other people think, that an e-book wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t be a real reading experience. I wanted to hold a book in my hand. I wanted to turn the pages. I wanted the feel of paper and the sound of it, and I wanted to be able to see by the thickness of each side how far I had got, and how much I was yet to read.

Then one day I saw the light: the book in its present physical format only seemed the norm because it had been around all my life, and for quite a while before that. But books haven’t always felt and looked and smelt the way I was used to. The presentation of a book is evolving just like every other life form. Take music. It’s not all that many decades ago that I and others were saying we didn’t feel as though we got as much for our money if it wasn’t vinyl we bought. These days I buy music online, download and play it straight from the computer as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Who needs to “touch” music?

As for touching books and liking the turn of the pages, I wonder whether readers a few millennia ago were similarly resistant to the evolving form. Did they miss the weight of the clay tablets, when papyrus came into use? And later, did text on parchment not provide them with a real reading experience, after they had become used to papyrus? And as for that new-fangled paper stuff, how could it ever take the place of the feel and quality of parchment?

So I hauled myself into the twenty-first century. I bought an iPad and a smart phone. I learnt how to sync my music and books. I joined Twitter. I got an iPod that was the smallest thing I had ever seen and yet it could hold enough songs to play through for five days without repeating itself. Of course, I didn’t manage all this on my own. I had to be taught by a kid who really understands this stuff. Still, I feel like the coolest 60-year-old in town.

Best of all, on a recent trip to Europe I was able to carry enough books and movies for the flights in both directions, as well as all the train-trips and reading-in-bed while I was away. My luggage was noticeably lighter than usual and I had no need to shed books as I moved on. No more leaving a quite amusing paperback in a hotel room or swapping something I’d really enjoyed for someone else’s discarded choice.
There is still that thing about no titles or covers showing, to be judged by. Not only will no-one on the tram realise what a fascinating text I’ve got in front of me, but how will I know what they’re reading? Maybe iPad can introduce an optional light-up strip on the side, with colour codes to show “I’m reading fiction” or “This is really heavy economics”.

Or should we guard this unexpected secret we’re allowed, in a world where in all other respects privacy has been lost?

I met Margaret Dahlstrom through her daughter, Fernanda, who knew me from my books, when they moved to Apollo Bay for a time. Fernanda introduced them one day in the street.

They were a striking pair, different in some ways and yet both interesting, outspoken women with strong opinions and bright, wayward minds. That was a fleeting encounter, but Apollo Bay is small and we kept bumping into one another. Before long, we were meeting for coffee, talking books and movies and music and animal rights and all sorts of other things. We became friends and even though they left Apollo Bay and I am currently living in Europe, we try to catch up whenever we can contrive for our paths to cross.

Margaret’s preferred occupation is translating. But she has worked in a range of other jobs to supplement her translation and support her reading habit. She also recently completed a PhD in Swedish literature. I always intended to ask a translator to take part in this debate because book form changes affect a lot more people than the publisher and the writer and readers. Margaret was the obvious choice for me. Aside from actually being a translator, she has always been able to think outside the box, and she has a sharp clever wit that never fails to make me laugh, though I am actually a bit humourless…

Her comments were as dry, as provocative, as clever, as her mind.

18 Responses

    1. Min Dean says:

      We have new ways of sharing this stuff around – just look at the majority of your Facebook and twitter feeds. I used to use this app on Facebook that at a click of an ‘I’m finished’ button posted picture, title and description of what I had just read, plus a review and rating, if I chose to post them.
      I stopped using it when I realised how pretentious it must look to others (particularly because I was going through a ‘classics’ phase) – and because the app kept changing and finding new thrilling ways to advertise to me; I hadn’t thought about it initially because I was just posting it because I wanted to keep track.
      In the end I doubt anyone really cares what I’m reading, and furthermore if they’re going to judge me (whether the judgement be good or bad) on what I’m reading, I don’t really want to be friends with them :-/

      • Maureen says:

        That’s the problem to me with various apps- they gear towards marketing the next consumer product. A hardcopy book doesn’t do that beyond reccomendations at the back of the book.

        I do love reading those sometimes. My childhood copy of Obernewtyn has all of these random book recc’s at the back of it, including Letters from the Inside by John Marsden, and it’s great fun to read them and see where authors have gone now, or what was a hot author topic back in the day.

        Also, far more aquaintances who I would never invite back to my house see my facebook feed. You only get to my bookshelf if you actually know me. The audience is far smaller.

      • Min Dean says:

        But – I guess my point there was, if someone’s going to judge me based on what I read, I don’t want them in my house to begin with 😛
        My partner and I sifted through and chose which of our books we wanted on our lounge bookshelf (as opposed to the others in the computer room) based on which authors and stories we love and want to have right there for us to see/read. Not on what makes us look the most literary / conversation starters.

        I totally agree with what Emily says below – you can bring the book up if you want to discuss it with someone, not leave a book lying around hoping someone will notice.

      • Maureen says:

        I see what you mean, but I just want to clarify that I don’t leave around what is most literary or most popular. I leace around what I am currently reading and enjoying which would be my favourite authors and stories- they are the ones that get pride of place on my bookshelf.

        It is a great conversation starter because people see them and ask about them… or don’t. The point is, it’s harder to do that with an ereader because the act of reading is solitary. If a friend is over you aren’t likely to pull out your ereader and start talking about it, unless the conversation is already headed in that direction. If a book is on the table from your breakfast read, it is much more likely that a person will comment on it or look at the back.

        I want people to share and love books with me because I value books and storytellers (trying to be one myself) and therefore, am likely to find a kindred spirit in someone who reads them alongside me.

        I just wanted to clarify where I was coming from 🙂

      • Min, I used a similar Facebook/web app for books I was reading but then realised I didn’t necessarily want to share what I was reading with my friends all the time. ‘Liam is reading ‘ isn’t very interesting. Although, having the posts set to private and building an online virtual bookshelf of books you’ve read is nice to visit now and then.

    2. Vauny says:

      On one hand I think it’s actually better not to feel the need to display to the world what you’re reading. To not feel like you’re being judged by your taste in books.

      My partner once compared twilight to softcore porn magazines, in a sense that they both create completely unrealistic and idealised (to some) versions of the opposite gender. He told me jokingly that he judged these girls for reading it in public. And thinking about it seriously I guess there are some people who judge you for your reading, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

      I lived in Japan for a while and noticed something interesting – when you buy books over there the bookstore will wrap the cover in brown paper for you, at first I thought this was just some odd way to protect the book, then I noticed that people left the covers on while reading, you could even buy nice reusable book covers. My guess is this habit started because of the amount of pornographic comics and books which are sold, but I think a lot of it comes from the Japanese attitude of not sticking out – the idea is the complete opposite of what you want Margaret – they definitely don’t want people to know what they’re reading, even if it is popular and/or intellectual.

      On the other hand I’ve once or twice started conversations with random people on the train, because they came to speak to me about the book I was reading. So I guess not having covers does destroy that aspect of reading in public.

    3. Maureen says:

      I remember my mum and I reading a really great article about the ability to make judgements about people’s taste, and to some extent personality, based off their bookshelf. I think it was in Sunday Life an age back. My best friend, boyfriend and I all do this. We even arrange our bookshelves in specific ways so that people will be forced to notice certain authors first. Books at the top of the shelf and at eye level are our favourite authors and books down the bottom are either unread or less read books. I’ve discovered that you can make new friends very quickly based off your bookshelf.

      In some ways though, it is exactly like moving from vinyls/cassettes/cds to the single ipod. An ipod stores all of your music in the one electronic place. However, it is still easy to share ipods. I’ve found out more about my friends music tastes since ipods/mp3’s came into being because when in the car on long trips or travelling, it’s pretty common to look through someone’s music to choose a song to play. I’m not sure if this would be something that would happen with an ereader. I don’t know that there would be the same need because reading is more solitary in nature than listening to music.

      The ereader is absolutely brilliant for travel. The second time I went overseas, I was studying at Oxford University and had an enormous reading list. If I would have had to lug 12 enormousr non fiction books around Ireland as my family travelled it would have been a total nightmare. Being able to put them on my kindle saved so much space and energy. I also put fiction novels on my kindle and only brought one hard copy book instead of the usual three.

      However, Margaret makes a great point about travelling books. In youth hostels I stayed in, it was sometimes a godsend to ditch a paperback you’d just finished and switch it over for a new book. In Scotland, I ditched a Gregory novel for Pratchett’s Hogfather. It was lovely reading Hogfather in late November by a fire as it snowed heavily outside. It’s a nice tradition which gives books personalities and it would be sad to see that tradition end.

      Personally speaking, if I love an author, I want people to know it. That’s why I buy physical copies of authors books who I like and trust to write stories I’ll enjoy and ebooks for books that are enjoyable but not personal favourites- freeing up valuable bookshelf space for my absolute favourite books to have their own place to shine.

      In terms of privacy, what book I’m reading is not something I feel the need to keep secret. Books are conversation and world openers. Though there is a place for the ereader, I hope that there is always a place for hardcopy books too. For one thing, how would you ever get your favourite author to sign and personalise your favourite story by them if you only have books on ereaders? An electronic signature is just not the same.

      • deb says:

        Maureen, I love your comment about having authors sign a favourite book. I know that Isobelle has signed a great many over the years, (of mine and other peoples) and I love that she uses a fountain pen most of the time.

        I can just imaging going along to a talk, clutching an e-reader with the latest OC book loaded and asking for a signature. That fountain pen would do a whole lot of damage to the screen.

        At least that thought makes me laugh.

      • Vauny says:

        Actually I’ve had Isobelle sign my kindle cover (using a niko) as well as Brandon Sanderson. My plan is to cover the case with signatures of my favourite authors. I’ve always felt when I get a book signed that it should be on display, not hidden away on the inside title page. But then signing the actual books cover can sometimes ruin the gorgeous artwork – kindle cases are the solution!

      • Maureen says:

        That is very inventive of you! That’s a very cool idea, but I don’t think it would work for me. I’d prefer to have authors sign their own work as the signature is for me, more than for other people. Whenever I open my copy of Obernewtyn I smile to myself remembering the story of how it got signed at Sydney’s 2009 Writers Festival- it is a long tale involving standing listening to Isobelle’s disembodied voice in the rain, a lot of defeat, an awkward conversation with Garth Nix and a lady who spent an age interrogating my friend and I about Isobelle’s book covers, and Isobelle too of course 😛 The point is, I like having that signature and story associated with my copy of Obernewtyn in particular.

        Still- I think it is a great way to share your favourite authors!

      • Natalie says:

        I’ve never seen kindle cases used for that before, a very interesting way to show off your signatures. I do agree with Maureen though, in that I’d prefer to have authors actually sign their own books. It adds an experience that whenever you open up the book and see the signature (like the Writers Festival example above), you remember where you got it and certain key things that stuck in your mind on that day. It also opens possibilities for personalised messages. A personalised message would make more sense on the inside cover of a book than on a kindle cover.

        There’s also the problem of wear and tear – yes books can be bruised or beaten, but usually the insides remain intact enough to see the signature years after you got it. With a cover for an iPad/Kindle/etc, when you upgrade to the next version and the technology has upgraded so much that the old covers won’t fit on the new, what happens to the much-loved signatures then?

    4. Emily Craven says:

      It’s interesting how you leave your book lying around your house for visitors to notice. I like the fact that with an e-reader you can’t do that. Because that means you have to TALK to people and bring it into the conversation. That’s the wonderful thing about books, they give you something to talk about and discuss, it is in a sense social glue. The form will never change that 🙂

    5. Daniel says:

      You make a good point about privacy, for once we are gaining it back, by reading on a device, that doesn’t change for each book we read. But won’t this mean that authors and publishers lose a vital source of advertising? It means that you can’t find a new book to read by seeing someone read it on public transport, or in a cafe, or indeed in a bookshelf. Not only that, but won’t we lose the amazing covers for each edition of a book? I’m not too sure (not having an e-reader myself) but I don’t think the books have ‘covers’ because there is no need for them on a screen. The wonderful illustrations (that we do use to judge books, no matter what anyone says) will be lost, and you can’t display them on a bookshelf. Not only are bookshelves there to show others what books you read, but they can be used to make a home more inviting, and are decorative. Will people display their e-readers?

      I think seeing other people read the same books you have read, is a real joy. I know that on a flight, I spotted someone reading ‘Mockingjay’ the final book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, and I was excited for them. I wanted to know which part they were up to, and what they were thinking, and did they see that coming? With an e-reader, nobody knows what you are reading. So no longer will people be able to spot someone enjoying the delights of Harry Potter, and wonder where they are up to in the story. No one could spot someone reading Twilight or Twenty Shades of Gray, and silently judge them, or congratulate them for not being ashamed for what they are reading.

      One final comment. If everything becomes digital, what will happen to the mid-night releases of books? I’m sure most people recall waiting out in the early morning for the latest Harry Potter (or any other book) eager to get your hands on the next instalment. These waits create memories, and usually they are good experiences, you are able to see other fans, and get involved with a fandom. If you can just download the latest instalment it loses such an experience, and the fanfare. So are we prepared to lose such things, in exchange for the practicality of holding thousands of books at once (well we did with music)? Maybe we can compromise, and let ebooks into our lives, whilst still enjoying the benefits of a physical book.

      • Maureen says:

        re your last sentence Daniel, I certainly hope so! I have a lot of fond memories of waiting in Kmart lines for the next Harry Potter book. I also have fond memories of joking around with fellow Obernewtyn readers about the next book’s release date. My friend and I want to write messages to each other in our copies of The Red Queen as part of the memories attached for us to the series and you couldn’t do something like that with an ebook. My old copy of anne of green gables has a birthday message in it from the person who gave it to me. I love having those personalised touches.

      • deb says:

        There have been a lot of comments about music being digitalised throughout this debate and I just want to say that I own and play a variety of vinyl, cassette, cds and and iPod. When I do buy music on-line, I often burn a copy (quite legally) to a cd that I can play in the car or in my stereo.

        I’m beginning to think that I can have e-books as well as my book books.

      • Min Dean says:

        I loved the queuing and waiting for the last few Harry Potter books too – so exciting. And yes, very exciting holding the book in my hands.

        Just because we can’t launch every book (regardless of form) in person doesn’t mean that we can’t make an event of it, does it? In the conversion of a launch queue or party to a digital format – isn’t that what we’re doing, right here, right now, on this website? Having an online launch? Seeing if it works? Talking to people who we wouldn’t have otherwise talked to, because we’ve been attracted or directed to a place through a common interest? Only instead of it only lasting a few hours, it lasts a whole month.
        In a perfect world yes, we would be able to meet up and have a launch somewhere, but all of us live in different states – different countries! We all have different schedules and full-time work and life responsibilities. So as life gets busier, we have to try and take what we can.

        And – I’m reading about this a lot in recent comments – I’m actually glad now that I only take electronic books when I’m travelling – I didn’t realise so many people were interested in what I was doing and judging me for it, when I’m half-asleep or half-dead on the ride home…it’s enough to make a person paranoid 😛

      • On the subject of queuing for anything, books, apple gadgets, tickets then queues are a marvellous marketing tool. Think about all the stories you have seen of queuing on TV news. The marketeers get prime time television for free. Or at the worst case it might cost some giveaways, so many signed or free objects to start the queue and social media implants. Plus by implication, if there is a queue then the “object” must be good. A bit like the saying always eat in the busiest restaurant.

    6. Chris Neilsen says:

      Although I don’t actually own an e-book reader myself, I have been seriously considering buying one. And one thing that always gets me in these conversations when people say ‘But I love books’ is the idea that it has to be one or the other. Just because you read e-books doesn’t mean your can’t read a normal book too. I get a lot of my books from the library or from friends, because I can’t afford to buy that many books! And there are many books that I only want to read once, I don’t need or want to buy them and I don’t have space on all of my bookshelves for that many books! So I think the far cheaper e-books are a great alternative, they don’t fill your house with books you don’t need to read again and they’re much lighter than carrying around books (especially since from the library you often get the hard cover or even hard cover large print versions!). But it doesn’t mean that for a book you love or want to read over and over again or want to get signed that you can’t buy it in a paper form too. It doesn’t have to be either/or!

      As for being seen reading things, I do sometimes feel self-conscious about books that I’m reading in public. I do most of my reading on the train, and sometimes it is embarrassing when you’re reading a kids’ book or trashy novel or something like that. In this way an e-book reader is a great way to cover what it is you’re reading, no more embarrassment!

      But it also means you miss out on some other feelings when reading on the train too. Sometimes you feel superior when you’re reading really complex readings for uni on the train, which is human nature if not necessarily something we want to maintain! However, I’ve also had spontaneous conversations begin on trains when I was reading a book. I remember reading a Terry Pratchett novel and someone starting to talk to me about him. I don’t always want these conversations, because sometimes the other people are slightly creepy or I’m at a good part in the book and want to keep reading, but sometimes it’s nice to meet a random stranger and discuss a book. I love discussing books in general, and a bit of free publicity for books and authors you love to the rest of the train population might be good! So I think e-books can be good in letting you read Twilight just to see what the fuss is about or so that you can fully appreciate the Reasoning with Vampires website, without looking like you’re /reading Twilight/ ( 😛 😛 ) but it’s also going to take away the spontaneous moments to connect with another fan on a train. So again, good and bad.