I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…
So, it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m fast asleep. I dream the following:I’m in an empty restaurant, deep in conversation with someone I’d never met before. Even in the dream, this person is meant to be a stranger – a Millions reader named Oliver. (I had recently watched a new BBC version of Oliver Twist, though the person in my dream was in no way urchinlike).He is relating to me the fascinating and sordid details of his life. After a pause, I proclaim to Oliver that I know what his “formative novel” would be: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Though I’ve never actually heard the phrase “formative novel” before, I seemed to imply a novel whose spirit and tone most closely impacted the life that dream-Oliver would go on to lead. Not so much the plot of the novel, and not the author’s autobiography. I was apparently matching up the tone of the book with the tone of the reader’s subsequent life.I then went on to tell Oliver that my Millions colleague Garth’s “formative novel” would be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (I don’t know this to be true. I suspect that Garth’s passionate appreciation of David Foster Wallace planted the notion in my head several months ago. Nevertheless, dream-Garth’s “formative novel” was Infinite Jest).Oliver then asks me what my “formative novel” would be. I contemplate for a moment and then respond: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This is a curious choice as I hadn’t read it until about five years ago, when I was already well into my 30s. Still, the accessibly off-kilter humor of the novel does seem a good fit. Had I read it at an impressionable age, I suspect that it would qualify as a close match for the tone of my subsequent adult personality.The dream then took an odd turn. I was lying on my back on the sidewalk, still in conversation with Oliver, as a pack of schoolchildren and their teacher hurdled over me, never once looking down or stepping on me.Oliver then morphed into Jack Lemmon, circa The Apartment, and I jolted awake, and reached for a notebook and pen.So: what would your “formative novel” be? This requires not just a reading of the novel, but a certain amount of self-awareness. Try to match the tone of the novel with the tone of your life or of your personality. I guess it doesn’t matter when you read it. It’s fine if you read it later in life and retroactively match it up with your life. And, Garth, feel free to set the record straight.
What better time than now to bring back the pocket paperback? People have no money to spend on hardcovers, and even the full-sized trade paperbacks are a pricey, given the economic times. There are also strong trends in our society that encourage less waste and the downsizing of our myriad possessions. A return of those classic 6 3/4 inch by 4 1/2 inch volumes, now all but extinct, save for in a few genres and in used book stores, could save paper and space and entice younger readers for whom $25 for a hardcover and $14 for a paperback is too much money to risk.I’ve written in the past that books are too big — not too long, but too bulky and heavy and expensive — and pined for a return of the pocket paperback, so that carrying a book with you didn’t feel like such a chore. A combination of factors led to the demise of the pocket paperbacks that were prevalent in the middle part of the 20th century. These pocket paperbacks had been sold at newsstands and drugstores rather than bookstores, but as these venues stopped selling books, the pocket paperback market shrunk. Around the same time, a wave of consolidation hit the alternative book distribution network that had sprung up around these pocket editions, shrinking the number of books available, and consolidation among publishers folded the purveyors of the pocket editions into larger publishing conglomerates built on a different business model. Finally, the introduction of the trade paperback — the larger paperbacks prevalent today — squeezed the pocket edition out of the publishing equation except in a few genres — romances and mysteries — that still cling to the similarly-sized mass market format (which you can still see at grocery stores and in airports).But perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards pocket editions again. HarperPerennial recently introduced the Olive Editions collection. According to the marketing material, “they fit in your back pocket and only cost ten bucks each.” (And eight bucks on Amazon). So far the line includes three titles, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. At 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches, they are a touch larger than the pocket paperbacks you see in used bookstores, and while their cover design is smart looking, they are not as inviting as the pulpy art that used to emblazon even the classics. Nonetheless, they represent a smart move by HarperCollins, and one hopes that they will announce more titles in this format and that other publishers will follow suit.A full-fledged return of pocket paperbacks would be surprising, however, as ultimately it seems likely that an even smaller format will take center stage, a format that is indeed infinitesimal. With hardware innovations driven by Amazon’s Kindle and perhaps Apple and Sony as well, reading on these devices will become more palatable for a larger percentage of readers. Selection of titles will improve and developments like Google’s recent deal with publishers will further expand the availability of titles in digital formats.Like many other sectors of the economy, the publishing industry is likely to face serious challenges over the coming year. The silver lining of course, is that this may drive innovation. New formats (digital and tangible) created now may entice a new generation of readers down the road.