Book as Symbol: Perennial as Spring

iStockphoto - photog is Hammondovi

Convenience comes at the cost of a grave loss: that of the book as a symbol, as an artifact of learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude. While this loss may seem trivial, a simple matter of changing times and customs, the symbols we are losing permeate society and have long been shaping the fortunes of publishing.

 Publishing needs to build new symbols for the digital age at O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change


What do you think? As we watch the book transition into its fraught future, will the eventual scarcity of traditional volumes mean we can no longer recognize an image of that rectangular thing as a symbol of “learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude?” Or will the book as a symbol spring eternal?

Rest easy. With what poor wings I have, I am Unboxed today, fond Writer, to welcome in the spring for you, and with confidence. Take heart. Tra-la. Season’s greenings.

With some care and Campari overnight, I have set today’s post to move at 7:02 a.m. Eastern. That’s 1102 GMT. And that’s 1:02 p.m. atop Mount Olympus, kalomesimeri. It is the moment of the Vernal Equinox for this troubled year in the Northern Hemisphere.

A little punctuality is the least I could do, really. You feel better already, don’t you?

Of course, I’m a lowly, ham-handed follower of Hermes, the radiant son of Zeus and Maia. I’m all too good an example of the astrologically ordained contradictions with which he, like me, is zodiacally saddled. Hermes protects thieves as well as our poetry, commerce as well as our games. No wonder they put him in charge of the Gemini Department. Wait, am I coming or going?

FTD LogoBut I’m never sorry when he turns up in nothing but a helmet and those winged sandals to deliver the spring’s flowers, are you? FTD got that right. On the front porch, these are the moments that separate your friends from your neighbors.

My bouquet is redolent with reassurance. I think our articulate colleague François Joseph de Kermadec is incorrect. I think I know why. I think I can pull this off.

First, let’s have a couple more lines from this wonderfully elegiac post. Not the same smart idiom of tech-excellence we usually find at O’Reilly Media, by the way—the good de Kermadec’s mercurial phrases elevate the discourse:

François Joseph de Kermadec

The talismanic value of books extends beyond the frame, as evidenced by our everyday vocabulary, photo galleries of beautiful libraries and our general tendency to keep fetishising the book in contemporary home decor. After decades of encasing “fine books” in glass-fronted cabinets, it could be argued that, for a sizable part of society, the book is first and foremost a symbol of status and a reassuring promise of humanity.

Yep verily, say we. But when de Karmadec comes to the crunch to tell us that publishing now is “visually nude, providing a needed product still, but deprived of the strong emotional triggers that make up much of its strength,” I think I feel a less chilly draft than he does. And not just because I live in the South.

Sony Reader
Sony Reader

I confess, I found switching to digital reading alarmingly easy. Many Ethers ago, I got myself an early Sony Reader. It looked good on me. True, getting a book into it required something close to divine intervention but once it was on there, I found that I became just as immersed in reading it as if it were on paper. I was unwittingly practicing for the day Le Printemps-Bezosian would bud out with the Kindle and I got one of the first of those, too. I’m now on my third, a tablet model.

I’m even a little sorry that de Kermadec writes, “Nor do we pile up Kindle Fires on our occasional tables to subtly hint at our learned civility.” I love my Kindle Fire almost more than I love de Kermadec and I might recommend that he occasionally speak for his own occasional table. But I won’t. We are having a happy column today. God knows we’ve earned it.

So yeah, no. I’m all for what de Kermadec is going on about when he writes of promoting “newer symbols” to highlight what’s important to us, “including the evergreen qualities of intellectual superiority.”

But unlike frère François, I don’t think we’re going to be giving up the book. Not as a symbol.

So let’s be serious. I know, I’m one to talk. But I’m helped, as I am so frequently, by the toga-ed researchers of Bowker, who are today convening their annual Books and Consumers Conference in London. They’ve already begun hurling new facts and figures at our heads like bolts of you know what. Thanks to a release yesterday of a preliminary graphic, I can give you a warm-up.

Copyright Bowker Research | March 2013 release

The quick read: The blue sections you see on the tops of these three Bowkerian columns show the expansion of online book sales in the States from 2010 to the end of November 2012.  That gives us about 44 percent of book purchases, by volume, in the United States in 2012 happening through e-tailers, up from 25 percent in 2010. The message? In America, the industry! the industry! is conducting close to half its sales online.

Who’s sorry now? Chain booksellers. They’re represented by the dark-orange sections at the bottoms of the three columns. Their share has dropped from 32 percent of book sales volume in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012. That’s a 13 percent loss of market share.

Our friend and colleague at Bowker, Jo Henry, is quoted, saying, “It is clear that the ebook format has really come of age in the U.S.”

Say on, Jo Henry, the ebook era has come of age in the States, and it’s happening in many other parts of the world, as well. And no, I won’t put us through more of the ways we know that.

I will remind us all, however, that print books are still everywhere. Fear not. There’s no need to run screaming out into the daffodils and trample the tendre croppes.

But many of our best people in forward-leaning conferences are talking to us these days about “the networked book.”

Just yesterday at Milan’s IfBookThen Conference, digital author Kate Pullinger was picked up on twitter by many folks remarking that even our ebooks aren’t yet jacked into the Ether. eBooks, she reminded us, are like portable bits of the Web, but they don’t carry all its advantages. Not fully hooked up.

And in that vein, what de Kermadec gives us is a chance to consider not the loss of the book, but of the book-as-symbol. And there, I think he’s right to consider it, but he’s overshooting the mark. We’re surrounded today by symbols that have long outlived their original prototypes.

Such as?

Caduceus

Well, speaking of my man Hermes, have you found yourself reaching for your caduceus lately? Its symbolic deployment today is usually confused with the Rod of Asclepius and its rituals among the pines and cicadas at the Sanctuary of Asclepius near the great theater at Epidaurus in Greece. The Asclepian rod had one snake. Hermes’ caduceus had two. Either way, did you just remember a doctor appointment?

Ccross

How about this item? A Celtic version, in this instance. Thankfully, the cross is not used today in most places for archaic purposes of torture and execution. I can tell you as a minister’s son that it still packs a punch. Remember Amanda Hocking? Holding off vampires wasn’t likely what ancient Aryans or even some hieroglyphic-era Egyptians had in mind with their iterations of it. But the cross’ eventual nod to the scriptural crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is what it has signified to millions for millennia.

Crossbones (PSF)

Does the fact that most of us (I hope) don’t come into contact with human skulls or crossed bones on a regular basis mean that the symbol has lost its potency for us when a poison is around?

Air National GuardLook at this great Air National Guard patch for the 927th Communications Flight. See that sword? How frequently do we send our fighters out into battle with one of those things in their field kits? And yet when you see this, do you understand you’re in the realm of military symbolism?

Mosaics found at Hadrian's Villa, now at the Capitoline.And in case you haven’t made it to the theater lately, masks just aren’t the rage they used to be, except when you have a director with a concept.

If anything, I find we badly overuse the traditional book as a symbol.

Vladstudio 's Library Wallpaper, a detail
Vladstudio ‘s Library Wallpaper, a detail

Have you noticed how many sites of folks connected to publishing have some version of the endless-bookcases wallpaper as a blog background?

The best of it, mind you, may be quite artfully conceived, as in the thumbnail excerpt I’ve made here of Vladstudio’s Library Wallpaper.

Periodically, even the cat pictures give way to people’s rapturous exchanges of photo galleries picturing strange or beautiful or silly (lots of silly) bookshelves.

This is the fetishizing impulse de Kermadec writes about.

You may remember a video passed around last year, The Joy of Books,  lots of volumes jumping up and sashaying around to music in a nighttime bookstore, Type Books in Toronto.

The Joy of Books video from Ohkamp
The Joy of Books video from Ohkamp

Many people were ecstatic with this video, 3.5 million views’ worth of ecstatic. It’s made by the folks at Ohkamp, and represents a huge amount of work.

I found it creepy. And I found it even creepier that publishing people went so crazy for it. The person right next to you might be imagining a shop full of suddenly animated books right now. I name this creepy. Now that I think about it, that may be when the Campari started.

But while not a fan of fetishizing the book, I’m also not interested in seeing it end its long life as a symbol.

I have some traditional books that are very important to me, chief among them my grandmother’s complete Shakespeare with a soft suede binding. And I have an amazing code-of-conduct manual from The Citadel in old Charleston. It tells you precisely when, how fast, and for how long you will stand, Cadet, when a lady enters the room.

But I like how author Frank Rose closed IfBookThen in Milan, telling the audience, “A book is (more than) a book when it becomes a world, a living work of art.” He’s right. As soon as you read it, whether in ink or pixels, if our writerly job has been done well, then that thing is no longer a book, a dead-tree composition that can be tricked up to  go bouncing around on Canadian bookshelves in videos.

It’s the story it carries. Container is submerged to content in a kind of literary sacrament.

So I’m starting off this warming season in the Northern Hemisphere with a rose for de Kermadec—it’s a worthy exercise he touched off, thinking through whether a symbol can survive its artifact’s transformation.

And just how “visually nude,” as he terms us, are we in publishing today? Do we need to hustle out cover our nakedness with some new symbols?

 

Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, Anderson
At the Emperor Hadrian’s second-century villa in Tivoli, he modeled this reflection pool on one at the Alexandrian resort Canopus. Photo: Porter Anderson

 

The first time I visited the big reflection pool at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, outside Rome, I knew without being told that the guy with the shield in his left hand is Mars. And did that shield not tell me what he symbolizes? As if I’ve ever hoisted a shield, except onstage. Put a book in Mars’ right hand, and you’re showing me a military strategist.

I say our symbol will survive the morphing modes of digital delivery.

So as I started by asking, what do you think? As we watch the book transition into its fraught future, will the eventual scarcity of traditional volumes mean we can no longer recognize an image of that rectangular thing as a symbol of “learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude?”  Or will the book as a symbol spring eternal?

Main Hermes image: iStockphoto | Hammondovi

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, critic, and speaker specializing in publishing. A Fellow with the National Critics Institute, Anderson's "Porter Anderson Meets" live Twitter interviews are conducted weekly with the hashtag #PorterMeets on Mondays and run in London's The Bookseller magazine on Fridays. He is also The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing, with #FutureChat live Twitter discussions on Fridays. Anderson works with BookExpo America (BEA) to program the uPublishU Author Hub, which had its debut at the 2014 BEA. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, a first in the 2014 Buchmesse. More: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

Comments

  1. says

    What a romp, Porter! You have made my Spring, or at least its dawning.

    I admit to straddling the fence; and avid Kindler (the original version is good enough for me) and have two stuffed bookcases in the living room regularly weeded and replenished.

    I feel it unnecessary to take sides. Plenty of room for both POV.

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  2. says

    Such a good point, Alex, glad you made it about the reading aspect. I still read books in print, as well — especially when wonderful friends and authors give them to me! AND I love reading on Kindle.

    What do you think about the book-as-symbol? Will we lose it as things become ever more electronic?

    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

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  3. says

    In my role as a carpenter I did some work for an interior designer. For one of his contracts, a compact condo in a highrise, he wanted a ‘literary look’ without the pesky loss of space creating a wall of bookshelves would’ve entailed. He simply ordered the shelves built four inches deep, and painted dark on the interior space. Then he shopped in flea markets for old books and had the spines cut off so he could glue them in place on the mini shelves. I’m sure the owners enjoy their Kindles in the shadow of that lovely wall to this day. Very symbolic, don’t you think?

    I took a load of books to a donation box in the grocery store parking lot the other day. It was near overflowing. As I stuffed in my books, I noted how important to me some of them had been in earlier years. I still have many more books that are important to me than I have shelf space to display them. But these things are ever evolving. I was misty for a moment, but kept stuffing them down the chute.

    I agree with Alex, regarding reading, that there’s no reason to choose sides. And I agree with you that the book will never leave us as a symbol. Thanks for the laughs, and happy spring, Porter!

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  4. says

    Wow, Vaughn,

    What incredible lengths folks will go to, to GET that symbol of the book, huh? Your interior designer is a perfect example, creating faux shelves and too-shallow-for-reality books to create a wall of mini-shelves. Fascinating.

    My mother used to hoot about people she knew who would order “30 inches of red books” to put into an ornamental shelf in the living room — again, that grab for the symbol, and in those cases, without a basis for honoring what it means.

    On the other hand, I’ve had that same book-donation experience exactly; amazed to find myself looking at books I thought I’d never, ever part with, only to realize that I’ve moved on and now can donate them without too much remorse.

    All this, I think, argues for the durability of the symbol. (And yes, the logic of reading both ways — as I mentioned, I was quite alarmed when I first started reading on e-readers that it was as easy as it was for me to adjust!).

    I’m looking forward to decades down the road when we know a few more of these things that bother us as questions now, aren’t you? I think we’ll find the book is marching on as the symbol it’s been to us…even if we’re reading on our Amazon Cranial Direct-to-Your-Cortex Implants. LOL

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Vaughn, great to hear from you!
    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

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  5. says

    For years, I’ve argued with doubters that listening to a book on tape is the same–sometimes even better–than reading it. Akin to the oral tradition? The Odyssey and Beowulf? If it is a good story, we will absorb it and pass it along, no matter what the medium, I am convinced.
    I must admit, I have been a skeptic of digital books and so far I have not absorbed a book in this particular way. Your post here has helped nudge me a little closer to accepting (and applauding!) the fact that people are reading, even without pages and bindings. It might take a few centuries, but some day people might not remember the physical book, but they’ll still know Odysseus.

    With that in mind, I do think the physical book with pages and a binding will live on as a symbol of a story passed on in a polished form. We’re in the age of the book right now. Between oral tradition and digital everything, we have developed this physical object that means “reading.” I can imagine this will live on longer than real books themselves.

    Fantastic post. Happy spring~

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    • says

      Kate, what a lovely comment, and happy spring to you, too!

      I like this line very much: “Some day people might not remember the physical book, but they’ll still know Odysseus.”

      With that, you raise the possibility even higher than I did, of an enduring symbolic construct of storytelling (and who better than the long-traveled Odysseus?).

      I’d urge you, by the way, to try reading on a good e-reader. My current model, the Kindle Fire is, actually, a somewhat limited tablet. Many folks find this a problem because, as a tablet, it can access teh Web and do online things (email, social media, Web reading and surfing, and so on) that aren’t doable on a dedicated e-reader. The easiest way in is normally a dedicated e-reader and the newer model Kindles are a good place (but not the only place) to have a try, some of them with a soft glowing light for evening reading, which I love. I think you’ll find that the experience of “immersive narrative reading” is fully as good as it is with a paper book. Some folks do disagree, and that’s fine, we all respect that. But for most of us, as soon as a story takes hold, we’re into that story and the device — book, e-reader, or cereal box — is immaterial. The advantages of e-readers of course, are their marvelous ability to hold whole libraries, to procure new content “through the air” wirelessly, and to even provide what I find a very good shopping/browsing experience in the case of Amazon’s store. (Much contention on this point, of course, many folks still preferring the physical bookstore experience, which is fine.)

      All the best with your work and do just keep exploring, as I’m sure Odysseus would tell us all, in “winged words.”

      Cheers,
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  6. says

    I’m with Alex – why can’t you have both? And I do, oh I do.

    I’m with you, Porter. I don’t think the book will lose it’s status as symbol. As you so elegantly noted, there are a lot of things you don’t see very often (my husband is retired Army – he didn’t carry a sword and shield), but people still instantly recognize them and what they stand for.

    Pass me a glass of that Campari. =)

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    • says

      Hey, Mary,

      Funniest thing, I thought I was doing a post that would ask about the symbolism of the book going forward, but right out of the gate, Alex chimed in with his (correct) assertion that we can read both traditionally and with digital devices — it’s an issue I’d never even thought to ASK! I thought, “Well, of course, we can all read both print and digital,” it never even occurred to me that we’d be considering whether one can or should do both. My recollections of how fast I learned to read electronically were really only meant to shore up the idea of how fast things are moving from the print-only history of things to the also-digital, not to suggest that we should go whole-hoggishly in one or the other direction!

      But that said, I’m delighted that everybody is stating their preferences on this (and that most seem to agree that reading both ways is great, I say this is the “correct” answer, lol) — it’s turned into a double-issue column, somehow, lol.

      Your husband, I should add, is a great source of knowledge about symbols, as so many folks from the services are. I find the military’s range of symbolism just incredible. In fact, I had two other patches for the column, but felt it was running too long. One shows two crossed swords cradling a helicopter! — the ancient + modern message there is unmistakable and beautiful. Another shows a fierce dragon. And how recently have we seen one of those critters? And yet, as you say, the messages those things throw off are unmistakable.

      Great of you to have read and commented, thank you again, and for the tweet this morning, too!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  7. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I think there’s a larger transformation going on, not just about books, but about the shift of possessions from physical objects to bits and bytes. In this age, the difference between a ‘have’ and a ‘have not’ is increasingly only legible in the variety of information readily available on the e-screen (and perhaps the variety of e-screens available). This shifts the whole symbolic world. The electronic possessions are less weighty, as per the common mantra “I can carry my entire library with me” on an ereader, but no less full of weight.

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    • says

      There’s a lot of truth to this, Jeanne, as more people are becoming concerned about ecological footprints.

      However, the meager interest in e-books within the educational system seems to support the value of tangible, paper-form books as the teaching tools of choice, ensuring their existence–real and symbolic–for the foreseeable future.

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      • says

        I found it interesting that one of our local private high schools, one which my kids are considering, give every student an iPad and all texts are digital.

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        • Jeanne Kisacky says

          Mary–the technology divide in schools is well-documented. The private school with ipads is probably a fabulous school, but it’s on the extreme end of the spectrum.
          Therese-have you really had educators show little interest in ebooks? I know lots of educators who would LOVE to teach with ipads/ebooks/ computers, but there’s just no money for it. They get four (old decrepit) computers for a class of 20+ kids. So is paper the choice, the crutch (what the old time teachers are comfortable with), or the only affordable option?
          Plus as far as ecological viability, I wonder where the old ereaders are going to end up . . .

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          • says

            What I’ve seen is that educators would like to move in the “e” direction, but it just won’t stick. (I’m primarily talking about college students, not high-school students.) Here’s a quote from Tom Malek, Vice President of Learning Solutions for McGraw-Hill Higher Education:

            E-book adoption among college students has remained consistently, almost puzzlingly low. Studies currently show that about 3 percent of college students are purchasing e-books.”

            Three percent. Crazy, right?

            Money is definitely part of it, and the fact that there isn’t a huge chasm between the cost of a real book and an e-book in academia, even though there should be based on cost to produce, could be at least part of the holdup. But I’ve also read a lot of students say things like, “Primarily, I use textbooks as revision guides during exam period, and I would prefer to be able to hold them physically whilst in stress mode – and also because a technical error deleting my textbook would send me into super panic mode!”

            Everything is debatable. Case in point, each of the referenced articles in this comment point to positives and negatives for both camps. But still: three percent. For whatever reason.

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            • says

              THREE percent! Crazy in the extreme, Teri!

              This is the sort of thing I’m seeing, too. And I’m glad to read Tom Malek saying that it’s “almost puzzlingly low” uptake by college kids on digital.

              I’m about as far from parenthood as you can get, and not teaching at the moment, so granted, I’m not with these students on a daily basis. But even with cost factors taken in — and with the cloud to save that deleted textbook under pressure (my God, do they really think an ebook is ever truly gone-gone?) — I’m so stymied by this.

              We see cellphone adoption from early ages, of course. And entertainment-device adoption, naturally. But when it comes to digitized educational experience, what I had expected would be an absolute hotbed of early adoption, the campuses, remains stubbornly behind.

              I’d love to see some psycho-sociological coverage on this. I’m not sure we’re actually talking about an economic issue in many cases as much as something to do with those old symbols — of college, of higher education, of campus life, of halls of ivy. It really starts to feel like a kind of image-adjustment thing, doesn’t it? “What we thought we’d look like when we got into college.”

              -p.

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          • says

            Yeah, Jeanne,

            Just my point to Mary, as well, I’m loving the idea of those iPads — Mercury for moderns! — but, amazingly, we still don’t seem to understand that we need to pay for the digital rollout in the broader, non-private educational forum.

            I’d love to see a day when “corporate responsibility,” in fact, meant the device makers actually donating the equipment to education — knowing, of course, that they were courting millions of future paying customers in the process while young, but also providing that cost solution to the problem of budgets that aren’t there for tech.

            Only in some isolated programs, I guess, is this kind of corporate-educational liaison work going on, which is a shame. But that, too, may someday change as the markets finally become saturated with devices (sooner than later) and the manufacturers have to get more creative in finding new markets.

            -p.

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          • says

            Jeanne, I know – that’s why I found it interesting. This is an incredibly small school, so I was actually shocked that the undertook this expense. I recently read an article that schools are balking at the purchase costs – publishers want them to pay for each “copy” of the book. They think it should be more like software licensing – and I can’t say as I disagree with it. Sure there is the cost of the device – but how often do you need to update it if all you are doing is reading books?

            Porter, you would be stunned at how many of the “digital generation” really don’t understand that nothing gets deleted – ever. That even that stupid photo you posted to Facebook and then “deleted” isn’t really deleted. For all their sophistication, they really just do not comprehend that just because it is pixels and bytes it’s just as “permanent” (and maybe even more so) than a physical photo.

            As someone who lugged heavy tomes of literature around and remembers the back-breaking weight of my high school backpack (heck, we had to buy rolling packs for my middle-school kids because of the weight of all the books), I’d have *killed* for something more portable. And really, once you get used to it it is easy to highlight and annotate on an e-reader, so I don’t get that either.

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            • says

              Agree, Mary, it’s astonishing how many people don’t know that “digital is forever.” and I’m continually shocked to find that the folks we think DO know these things — albeit with some generational assumptions that probably aren’t fair — just don’t pan out the way we expect. The difference in what younger people right now seem to value in privacy, for example, leaves many folks open to an awful lot of exposure you can tell they don’t really understand.

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        • says

          I’m liking that private high school, Mary (though I might not like its price!).

          Not only for the exigencies of teaching but for bringing kids into the digital world in their formative years so well, it seems to me this is really an enlightened way to go, just unfortunately expensive. (Then again, using iPads would represent a higher-end approach than some other devices might, and I’m sure the corporations are jockeying around such ventures to see how to bundle and cut the rates for educational initiatives like this.)

          -p.

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          • says

            And it teaches them a useful way to come into technology instead of just playing Angry Birds.

            And while the price tag of any private school is sometimes gut-wrenching, my local public school is abysmal for many reasons. And this one is actually one of the more affordable options. =)

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            • says

              Whew, Mary, you just said that so much better than I did: teach them to use tech in a more useful way than Angry Birds. Exactly. With all respect to the gaming industry, I’m as distressed to find kids who think devices are always for play as i am to find senior citizens who think computers are only for work. The generational gap may be really wide on a lot of these things, but both sides of that gap can have such a short-sighted viewpoint.
              -p.

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      • says

        OH, you’re onto a big question for me, Teri — good thing I don’t have kids or I’d really be down the rabbit hole of this one.

        The whole thing of the educational world not embracing digital as fast as other parts mystifies me. Especially when I look at these marvelous developments that allow a professor to create a virtual textbook from many, many sources — there are companies that will procure what the prof needs, negotiate all the rights to use it legally, put it together into a great single unit and produce it for the professor and students, and, being digital, without nearly the cost or drag-it-around work everybody would go through if they had to buy all the textbooks contributing to this compilation and haul them in and out of class, etc.

        And yet…no, education is still hanging on to that paper.

        Honestly, I can’t say they’re wrong. Since I’m not in that sphere at this point in my life, it’s hard for me to see into what’s happening there. And educators are, by nature, a smart bunch, of course. There have to be some good reasons for this slower uptake in their world of digital.

        But from the outside, it’s confounding. If anything our recent talk of a secondary market for “used digital content” — still blowing a lot of minds — might have massive implications if textbooks could be sold in digital form at “used” rates. Imagine selling back your e-textbook to the campus bookstore at the end of the year?

        More Campari, please….
        -p.
        @Porter_Anderson

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        • says

          I remember lugging around a backpack full of $90-$120 textbooks, and hypothetically I would’ve loved the option to ditch them all for a slim e-reader. But there’s this: Most students like to take highlighter to text while reading for later study. True, you can use your reader to leave e-highlights, but is it as effective?

          I do think you’re onto something when you talk of ivy-covered walls and tradition, Porter. Real books are the tried and true. And in the world of higher education, the e-reader and its vast universe of potential books is The Velveteen Rabbit.

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          • says

            Perfect metaphor, Teri, the Velveteen fuzzy one.

            I hear you on highlighting. I actually didn’t like highlighting on my Kindles until I realized that I could jump in and see all the highlights together — not just on the Kindle but also on my Kindle-for-PC app, where I can copy them and drop them into a piece as quotes, etc.

            Once I’d discovered that searchability factor –and not having to remember whether I yellowed something up in the front of the book or the back of the book or where and rifling through the book trying to spot the highlights, etc., etc. — I was sold.

            But it took stumbling onto this, and it took me some time to do that. It takes time to be ready to find certain digital advantages, seems to me. And maybe on the campuses, we’re just waiting until those advantages start outweighing that backpack full of $120 textbooks! :)

            -p.

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    • says

      Hey, Jeanne,

      Thanks for coming by, and what a perceptive comment!

      In fact, if anything, the supreme genius of some of the world’s oldest mythological symbols contain the seeds of that very less-weighty, carry-it-all-on-your-back trend you’re recognizing in the digital dynamic. Our guy Hermes always travels light. His message can be as light as a feather or as heavy as a pronouncement of war to the mortal world, but he’s just as buoyant no matter what, making me think that a concept of lean-is-good, lightweight-is-great, might have made sense even to the ancients.

      In my personal experience of this, I find it frustrating that my very human context isn’t as good at shifting to “lite” as my digital assists are. For all the screens and devices and other digitized supports and tools I use daily, and I’m fairly well teched-up, my DESK IS STILL A MESS! Oy vey, I seem to scribble out more little Post-It type notes everywhere than fewer, and it makes me crazy. I still print out this page and that to track this thing and that, and after many, many years of online banking still can’t seem to get all the billings paper-free.

      (In Denmark, they have a wonderful government-ordered program that allows you to refuse all junk mail in your snail-mail box. Heaven! You put this sticker on and it’s all gone, just the essentials. I really miss that now as ridiculous catalogs and flyers and direct-mail nonsense piles in on me daily.)

      So I’m looking for the day when my crazy human head catches up with the sleeker, down-to-the-data cleanliness you’re talking about and helps me finally de-clutter my life. It’s better each year but still so far to go.

      Maybe next month, a post on Enduring Symbols of Clutter.

      OK, I need more Campari.

      Thanks for the great comment!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  8. says

    Wonderfully entertaining article, Porter! You are spot on regarding the traditional book’s iconic shape surviving as symbol for some time to come. It isn’t going to disappear because it is so convenient and easily recognized. That’s what symbols are, after all. Pictures that communicate concepts with lightning speed.

    I am more concerned that the shape of a bound volume will actually become nothing more than a symbol – something we understand, but no longer can possess, either because bound books no longer exist or because the few that do have become collectors’ items for only the truly wealthy. It may seem far fetched, but consider this analogy, rough though it is. Until the twentieth century, the horse was a main source of transportation and most people owned at least one. Many ordinary families owned several and then the automobile arrived. Now horse ownership is reserved for hobbyists with discretionary income (and lots of it), ranching and rodeo concerns, and the racing industry (the purview of the truly wealthy). Not a problem at all, unless you really enjoy traveling at a pace slow enough to allow observation of your surroundings in natural silence.

    While I don’t begrudge folks their Kindles, Nooks, etc., I would still like to be able to hold an actual book in my hands without having to take out a second mortgage my home. I love the heft, the feel, the act of turning pages, the smell – all the things that make up an actual bound volume. I like having my research sources open and spread about me as I write. I guess the Dodo and I have a great deal in common.

    Oh, and did I mention that my debut novel, Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, is coming out this summer in digital format first? The irony isn’t lost on me, but this is the face of fiction publishing and even Dodos must go with the flow. A Kindle or Nook is next on my shopping list.

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    • says

      Hey, Linda,

      Thanks for the very cogent comments here, you’re right on the money about the importance of seeing that the book isn’t rendered ONLY a symbol and an unattainable object.

      I think the real hope on that is that, unlike your good example of the family horse(s), the print book is, actually, now produced very easily. The Espresso POD (Print on Demand) machine, for example, can throw out a very good bound print edition of a book for you. The more finely crafted hardbacks still require special work and equipment, but I think we’ll be able to hang on even to a good proportion of that, considering that we’re still not into the level of care and feeding that one hits with stables, ranches, etc., as you say.

      In short, keeping a paper book production capacity is a lot lighter proposition than keeping a horse in every garage. And I’m not sure that there’s an intent anywhere (not even in Seattle, I’d hasten to say) to every fully replace print books with digital reading. Remember that even our biggest retailer, Amazon, eagerly sells print books and would not like to lose that market.

      But I have to HOPE that I’m not being too sanguine about this. Some awful dystopian road ahead in which we fight over the last remaining books and they disappear like Matisse canvases into private collections at auction is just terrible and probably not beyond the pale of, what shall we call this, “prudent caution?”

      In Hugh Howey’s Wool series of books, a part of the direly dystopian future he conjures up quite well (Hugh is a better writer than his genre, I keep respectfully telling him, lol), bound print books figure at times as vastly important objects, symbols, really, of the lost world we enjoy today and holders of terrible secrets and instructions. Fetish gives way to iconography there, and it’s a good thing for us to read this because, yeah, but for the grace of God (or the intervention of the market, lol), might we go.

      If I may just say a word about your interest in a Kindle or Nook, do a little research when you’re ready to buy on the current state of Barnes and Noble and its Nook division. The recent downturn in B&N’s fortunes, the offer to buy back all BUT its digital assets (from Leonard Riggio), its generally questioned protestations that it’s committed to the Nook…these things point to a very iffy future for that particular line of devices and the way that B&N might be able to service them. (Laura Hazard Owen, my friend and colleague at paidContent.org, does a fine job of staying on top of the evolving, bizarre B&N situation.)

      I’d just hate to see you jump into a car moments before its manufacturer did an about face, you know? A Nook might be just right for you, mind you, I’m just raising a special caution flag on that one since its corporate landscape is rather recently fogging over. Amazon is, for now, fully committed, as far as we can tell, to the Kindle as a vehicle to sales (they were the first to understand the e-reader as just that marvelous retailing device, a direct channel to readers). And there are also Kobo e-readers, today’s Sony Readers and more, of course, as well as a host of tablets. Lots to look at. The trick is to just be aware of the business status of the big companies behind them to be sure you get something that’s not only great for reading but also can support your habit with affordable, easily obtained books on demand without hassle. The technical capabilities are pretty good throughout the market now. It’s the service, customer relations, and sheer range of available books, of course, that you want to look at now.

      All the best, and thanks again for reading and for your great comments!

      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  9. says

    I edited my life a couple of years ago. Left a large house, moved back to our horse farm and small farmhouse. I gave away boxes and boxes of books, saved my beloved signed editions and the ones I often reread. I then bought a Kindle and gave it my best shot. And I didn’t feel the pull of immersion into the tablet. Now I’m back to buying physical books and finding creative ways to store them. But I only keep the ones I love most. For some, like me, the physical book springs eternal. Or until I join Persephone in the underground.

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    • says

      And thank heavens Persephone is out again! :)

      Enough snow, my Lord, I was in Boston for the AWP Conference and, man, about six winters worth of that weather happened in one three-day conference, a lot of folks are just crawling across the tarmac to that big plane called spring this year, lol.

      Thanks for your good comments, Darrelyn, it’s really interesting that e-reading didn’t “take” for you. This really does happen for some people, good to have an example from someone in the publishing industry.

      In fact, have you had a sense for how many paper and hardback copies of My Call to the Ring — your book with Deirdre Gogarty — have sold, as opposed to how many e-copies? I’d love to know the breakdown there, in that your and Dee’s book is set in a traditionalist world (Irish boxing!) and yet with a non-traditional story (a woman who puts on the gloves), so there are potential interpretations to suggest both things — that it might sell better as an ebook, or that it might sell better in paper.

      The storage issue is huge. I still have books stored in Atlanta, though I’ve been out of that city for several years. And what’s stored isn’t the sort of thing that can be placed onto an e-reader easily, so I know that those library elements will have to stay with me, somehow, for the long haul.

      We’re creatures of the transition, huh? :)
      Thanks!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  10. says

    I’ve published e-books and have been told they are not ‘real’ books. I agree I’m tied to the printed page, but electronics speaks to the future. My children live an Internet only existence. And read books. Both also remind me of the growing landfills and deforestation. Out of the mouths of babes.

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    • says

      Hey, Mary Jo,

      Yeah, as I was just saying to Darrelyn Saloom here, we are SO in transition, huh?

      Along the lines of your good comments, I have to say, too, that I’m never real happy to hear someone call traditional books “dead tree books” and things, but it does bother me that the production of those things we love so much is so rapacious of such natural resources. Especially when I hear of unsold books being pulped, I’m really staggered by the waste of trees that were killed but never even read as books. It’s a strangely simplistic view of things, I know, but it still catches up with me at times. Deforestation really does suck and the traditional books we love so much really do require dead trees to be produced.

      Maybe the best we can do is admit that the transition is good, at least for some ecological reasons, and console ourselves in our digital direction with that context along the way.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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      • says

        It’s hard to get numbers for e-book sales. Our first breakdown from publisher showed more physical book sales. When we get the next report, I’ll share with you. Btw, I do use my Kindle for e-book-only publications. Today, I believe, avid readers need both.

        So glad you survived AWP. :-)

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        • says

          Thanks, Darrelyn,

          I know it’s hard to track (or reveal in some cases) ebook sale numbers. Major retailers are withholding a lot of information in that area as proprietary data, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing but it does make it really hard to really quantify what’s happening. Thanks, though, and I’ll be all ears when you get more info you want to share.

          -p.

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  11. says

    I won’t argue the ebook/real book as I have a lot to say about that; too much for a comment. I will back up my answer to your post with another symbol. My answer being that books will always be a symbol for learning, et al. Just look at the quill. I can tell you in my research on quills (for a website), even if ‘quill’ is not in the name of a web-site, there are many 100’s of web-sites that have quills to signify that they are writing sites.
    When was the last time you wrote for an extended period of time with a quill?
    Exactly! Great article, Porter. Thanks for the smiles.

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    • says

      EXCELLENT symbol, Lee, and one I should have thought of, right off!

      The quill, of course. It still shouts “writing!” no matter where it turns up and yeah, my grocery list was last written with a quill and ink when?

      Really a good example of the enduring capacity of these things to carry on, long after the situation on the ground has left the original artifact behind.

      Thanks, Lee, and all the best!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  12. says

    Perhaps the book as symbol has two connotations? One is the symbol for learning while the other is for being the learned. (I have no idea how to spell that… learn-ed? Anyway, those who have education and are more intelligent and therefore more successful. Which, by the way, is not a theory I hold.) In the past, only the rich people were taught to read and could afford books, which meant books were a status-symbol. Then, when school systems came into place and reading became commonplace, books became symbols for learning. Which symbol, if any, would stick around without the physical object sitting on the shelves in front of us? I don’t know. Once again, you’ve made me think, though. Your job here (in my brain) is done!

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    • says

      Hey, Lara, thanks so much for reading and commenting. (You’re spelling “learned” correctly, too, it’s the same word, just pronounced differently, lol.)

      I’m still impressed with Lee’s example of the quill. Now THAT is a symbol that persists — means writing everywhere you see it — but it surely isn’t sitting on the shelves in front of us. So we know this kind of longevity of symbol is possible.

      And I’m glad my job inside your brain is done, lol. Good of you to think with us, and especially to leave a comment, much appreciated!

      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  13. says

    As the mother of a college student in her 14th year of private school, I’d like to chime in here on the insanity of textbooks and their publishers.

    In high school, we paid $800-$1,000 a year for textbooks. It’s less this freshman year of college, because her college (The New School) is aggressively green. Their embrace of technological solutions is refreshing.

    Why do textbooks cost so much? Does a school need to change their French vocabulary or geometry books every other year? No, of course not. But they do. I don’t mean replacing books that are worn. I mean changing editions so that older titles cannot be used anymore.

    School systems – and private schools as well – enter into cozy agreements with publishers. I sold supplemental books to Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and I saw deals done that would curl your hair.

    Conversely, the little private girls’ school I attended in St. Louis started handing out laptops to their students 10 years ago. The math “books” were the first to be loaded onto their computers, and more followed. They, too, are aggressively green.

    Educational publishers will jump feet first into the digital market when they can figure out how to make money on it. It will be good for the carbon footprint, but I guarantee, it won’t be any cheaper than print.

    Gemini, huh? That explains a lot. ;)

    Viki

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    • says

      Hey, Viki,

      I don’t doubt a thing you’re saying about the textbook industry.

      Digital destroys those manufacturers’ ability to make incremental “41st edition” changes in texts and charge more for them. Online, the updates can be made easily and quickly, and that means cheaply and the publishers don’t like that.

      I’ve seen many efforts to defend the industry, none of them is convincing. (The Scholarly Kitchen with Joe Esposito is a good blog to watch on these topics, in case you haven’t found it.)

      I completely feel for you and others struggling with these issues and have been really surprised to see how separate the educational book market is from the trade market. They really are different kingdoms and frequently aren’t speaking anything like the same language.

      As for that school for “little private girls” — sorry, couldn’t resist, lol — I’m always in awe when I hear of outfits like that being so advanced ten years ago. It’s reassuring that it happens anywhere at all, even as it helps draw the kind of digital-dividing line none of us wants to see.

      Thanks for reading and commenting — and for the donation of Campari to the cause! :)
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  14. Aaron Sikes says

    Porter, lots of fun in this one. Thanks for the smiles on this bleak first day of spring. It’s mid-winter gray outside and I feel centuries removed from the expected birdsong.

    Whether it’s just my mood or the nature of the question you ask, I can’t say. But I don’t have good feelings for the future of books as symbols. The world will embrace e-reading wholly at some tipping point in the next decade or two, at $399 a pop, those e-readers are going to force a digital divide between communities across the globe. Welcome to the future; it will be spelled regency or oligarchy or some other term defining socioeconomic privilege and its counterpart, socioeconomic disparity.

    Jordan Stratford’s imagined bookshop is pleasant to think about (http://jordanstratford.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-local-bookstore-8-years-from-now.html?view=classic), and that’s where my QR comment came from, btw…but even so I have to ask: Who will be reading in the future?

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    • says

      Hey, Aaron,

      Thanks so much for the input and glad I could send a little of my tropical sunshine to your gray start to the season, lol.

      I know it seems that e-readers are a dangerously dividing economic force — and I can’t argue because you may very well be right in the long run — but I’ll just note that the base-model Kindle is now $69, and that’s not a special, that’s the everyday price for the edition that carries very unobtrusive ads (they appear as screensavers, they don’t invade the reading space). Now, granted, this isn’t the Kindle Fire tablet I’m using, which does everything but make breakfast, but it’s a sturdy, powerful device ready to bring you hundreds of thousands (no exaggeration) of books. 180,000 titles are Kindle-exclusive, which is boggling in itself.

      And lest I sound like Jeff Bezos’ best friend, don’t forget the coming Txtr Beagle that’s priced at some $15 or less, though the question now is who it will have as a partner-carrier and when.

      The digital dynamic’s engine being distribution, I think we have to expect the device-price issue to, at some point, tip over — as you’re rightly saying the reading trend will do. It’s interesting to note that in the UK, Bowker has just announced today that more books are being sold online there than in brick-and-mortar stores, first time for the UK. As the shift moves relentlessly in this direction, the Amazonian pathway — an e-reader as vehicle to other sales, not as a sales point in itself — will come into play. Recently, for example, DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield was speculating on a day when the Kindle is simply free; they’ll be giving it away because it’s the sales channel right into your hands that Seattle really wants.

      Long way of saying I hope that what you rightly recognize now as a economic dividing line in e-reading will being to blur and finally disappear.

      The QR code, while I understand your interest in it, has proven peculiarly unliked by consumers. It’s a little cumbersome. You have to get a QR reader app on your phone and then you have to light up the code and wait while it connects to whatever it’s giving you. This may get better, though. Right now, my boarding passes are all QR codes and Delta’s gate equipment read them in a snap. In that setting, it’s a slick technology I enjoy. So the potential is there, we just need some more development to get the hassle out of the use of those things and a bit more commitment to making them work than we’ve seen yet.

      Thanks again, and don’t worry, we’ll all be reading in the future. Digital will create more readers, not fewer, again because it’s a distributional powerhouse of a drive. WHAT we’re all reading is what’s up for grabs — Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women seem to have an unpleasant edge at the moment, lol — and on what object or device. Time will tell.

      Hope your spring looks better where you are quickly!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  15. says

    One more thought on e-books I haven’t heard mentioned. My mother is 86-years-old and an insatiable reader. When I went though my Kindle-only phase, she was not happy about it since she reads every book that I finish. I’d love to see an age break down of the chart above to see how many physical-book buyers are senior citizens or hurtling toward old age like me.

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    • says

      Well, here’s the thing about the generational gap (supposed or real) in e-reading — to my mind, anyway.

      One of the very best features of most e-readers, and certainly the Kindle, is the changeable font size. And this, to me, has always seemed a huge advantage for seniors who might like a larger font size and the ability to endlessly adjust and try out various alternatives until it’s just the right setup for the reader in question.

      I also know that many people don’t realize that in a lot of instances, they’re allowed to lend an ebook they’ve bought (this is a Kindle thing, I don’t know if others have it) for a period of 14 days to someone else. There’s information about it here http://ow.ly/jgHwO in case you’ve never come accoss it. This could make it quite possible, for example, for you to lend something from your Kindle to your mother’s Kindle if she wanted to read it. During the 14 days the book was with her, you wouldn’t have access to it. And it would revert to you after two weeks. It’s a great way for family members to share books. Publishers decide whether their books are available for these 14-day loans from one Kindle to another (or to a Kindle for PC app, etc.). And a book can only be loaned one time this way. This is not the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, by the way, this is strictly from one customer to another.

      Something to think about, maybe.

      Thanks again!
      -p.

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  16. says

    I fear for the book, as symbol or artifact. I don’t recall seeing a space travel movie where the characters read or used books. I think the general vision of the future might be electronic reading. The current tv commercial for Kindle is a case in point–people in pools, on walks, at the beach reading their tablet.

    On the other hand, my object of lust yesterday was a Kindle cover that looked like a leather-bound book. I use my IPad, so I didn’t buy it. But if I could find one that fit, I’d be there. I think mine might be the last generation of consumers for whom the symbol has such value.

    Cheryl

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    • says

      Hey, Cheryl, thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      You know, the thing about science fiction and space-travel films and TV is that they’re made in this era, when books aren’t remarkable. I think many authors would rather imagine more exotic advanced-tech potentials, so things as commonplace in our age as books may get short shrift. I wouldn’t take that to mean that we may not have books with us in the future. (That work is fiction, after all, lol.)

      But that Kindle cover! That sounds fantastic, I must find it for my Kindle Fire! Great fetishes on parade! :)

      Thanks again!
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  17. says

    I’m a bibliophile by default, and a digital reader by convenience. No. Scratch that. I am a reader by default and a print book, digital book and audio book omnivore by habit. And increasingly by appetite. In fact, I often purchase and “read” a title in all three formats. Bundling anyone? After all, print books still make awfully quaint wrappers.

    “If anything, I find we badly overuse the traditional book as a symbol.” ~ Sir Porter of Anderson

    Indeed! A nostalgic eleventh hour attempt to ensure the symbol’s immortality? I’m reminded by Vaughn Roycroft’s anecdote of a library and garden designer I once knew who sold fancy folks learned libraries by the foot. Paneling, bookshelves, paint, leather club chairs, carpet, musty odor and collector’s edition books. Silly gobs of money for guilt tomes that might as well have been hacked spines glued into 4″ shelves.

    That said, the book will endure, not just as a symbol, but as a luxury. An indulgence. A preference. Many of us after all still age wines to perfection and draw ink into fountain pens despite the preponderance of cheaper, easier, more abundant and better marketed alternatives. I haven’t ever ridden in a chariot or published poems on stone tablets, but I instantly recognize both in humanity’s timeless iconography.

    And what a joy it will be one day many decades anon to creak open the dusty spine of a vintage Quixote to read aloud to my grand nieces and nephews… Even with your Campari stains obscuring some of the text.

    Jolly post, Porter. Here’s to spring!

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    • says

      What a superb comeback, George!

      Thank you for it, I’m honored, especially by this handsome rendering of it here at your site.

      I especially like this line:

      Many of us after all still age wines to perfection and draw ink into fountain pens despite the preponderance of cheaper, easier, more abundant and better marketed alternatives.

      Yes, indeed we do. And when you DO take that ride in that chariot, I’ll be lifting my Campari to you.

      Cin-cin, sir, and well done!

      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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      • says

        What a gracious response! Thank you. Now so long as we avoid drinking Campari in a hurtling chariot… Perhaps only Hermes should quaff the scarlet cocktail in flight?

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  18. says

    As always, a delight, Porter.

    As you say, it’s the story that matters. Stories didn’t start out as books, and I don’t expect them to keep that singular shape for eternity. I read equally well in paper or on screens. In each case, what I retain, is the shape of the story, the twirl of language, the quirk of characters.

    On my shelves, I have a first edition of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and a first edition, signed, of Willa Cather’s a Lost Lady. Precious gifts from my dad. I also have a 1911 edition of Shakespeare’s works, from my brother. These are important to me not just because they are stories, not just because they are physical books, but because of a water-wash of memories that aren’t in the paper or the ink. I imagine your grandmother’s Shakespeare is important for similar reasons.

    So what does that mean for books and stories? These books have become part of my “story” of family, identity (Cather and Dinesen were part of my dissertation), and home. They are stories doubled, or over-layered — what’s inside the book, and what the book has become for me. Symbols work in a similar way, but their roots are deeper, longer. They are difficult to uproot, a part of a cultural memory of who we are, where we’ve been — family, identity, home. Given that (and my own disposition), I’m not inclined to worry about the future of “books as a symbol”. I’d rather spend my time and energy keeping stories and storytelling vital, in whatever form they take — because losing them, not as symbols but as realities, would be the bigger loss.

    p.s. So nice to meet you, finally, at AWP.

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