In the last decade there’s been a lot of discussion on e-readers and what they mean to the future of the book. Back in 2000 John Updike, in an essay reflecting on what he would miss about books if they go extinct, wrote about The book as furniture, The book as sensual pleasure, The book as souvenir, and Books as ballast. The debate has continued over the years, its intensity reaching a crescendo with every new advance in technology. More recently I’ve seen, through some blogs of book lovers, early signs of acceptance of the e-reader as an alternative. The practical advantages of the electronic version seem to be, if only slightly, edging out the charms of the much-loved paper-bound form. And if you were to believe the statistics, people with e-readers are reading more books than they did before – a healthy sign for the future of words and sentences.
I do not own an e-book reader. The iPad at home has an iBooks application, but I seldom use it to read books. I do use the iPad to catch up with blogs, and as a result I am reading more blogs these days – sitting on the couch or curled up in bed – than I did before, slouched awkwardly in front of a PC. When it comes to books, I’m happy staying with the paper version. The reasons are mostly personal. Books have a certain presence in my hands, a sensual feeling I wouldn’t wish to renounce. I like the look of a book lying, half open, on the bedside table or on the sofa. My memory of a book read in the past is linked to the design of its cover and the texture of its pages, abstract notions that form an index in the mind’s archive. But there is another quality that we tend to overlook, one that, I suspect, will be hard to replicate in the digital form: collections of books on a shelf are visible in a way their electronic versions aren’t.
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Not too long ago, after months of looking for alternatives, we decided on a bookshelf. It was a popular model from IKEA, with frames of white and shelves you could vary in height. I took a day off work to set it up. (The excitement reminded me of my younger self, refusing to go to school the day after dad brought home a shiny new bicycle, my first.) I took pictures in the process, and created a video out of them.
The shelf now has a strong presence in the apartment. Gravity too, but not everyone who comes home is attracted to it. Those who are tend to lose themselves looking at the titles and later apologise for being asocial; they also pick up some, promising to return them soon.
I often find myself stopping at the shelf, involuntarily, to look at a spine that suddenly seems interesting. It may be a book I’d forgotten all about, or one I never knew existed, or even something I periodically return to. Sometimes, sitting in the dining area when I turn towards the shelf a book I spot makes me curious, and glancing through it starts me off on a new journey, a path that leads to more books, loosely connected to one other, forming, in my mind, the outlines of a story, a narrative I never could have imagined before.
The transparency – towards our collections – the bookshelf creates, and the chance encounters with authors, characters, places and situations it prompts is, to me, the strongest reason I’ll stick to books for a while. I do not see a “digital bookshelf” coming close, in the near future, to a book collection housed in wood and placed along a wall.
But over time the way we interact with collections will evolve. We’ll grow more comfortable browsing them through a screen displaying titles (and perhaps their covers.) Libraries will morph into large halls not with bookshelves but terminals allowing access to the entire digital archive with a few keystrokes. Your home will come equipped with wall-to-wall screen displays showing titles from your collection, images you can touch and explore. Lending to a friend will be a matter of a digital command, and your shelf will tell you which of your friends is reading what book.
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These thoughts on the bookshelf have triggered an idea for a series. Every now and then, after picking a book – previously read or unread – from the shelf, I could perhaps jot down an extract and publish it in this space. Over time it may grow into something worthwhile, a digital counterpart to the physical shelf, with notes on the book and comments from readers.
I do not know how far this will go, but let me start anyway. I begin with Ka.
Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks
One day, Indra began to buzz around the ancient hermitage of the rsi Gotama. The sage had gone down to the river for his morning ablutions. His gloriously beautiful wife Ahalya was sitting in a flowery clearing, rapt in thought, playing with some twigs. Disguising himself as Gotama, Indra went up to her. Mimicking the ascetic’s voice, he said: “Woman of admirable calm and slender waist, I wish to unite myself with you, for the pure pleasure of it.” Ahalya looked up and immediately saw through the clumsy disguise, in which, rather than the solid build of Gotama, a bull among his fellow seers, Indra’s slimmer, adolescent body was all too evident. Bored with her life in the forest, she consented to the false husband’s proposal, but in such a way that the god would appreciate that she had immediately recognized whom she was dealing with and meant to be possessed by him, not her husband. She headed for the hut.
I haven’t read the novel, although it has been a part of my collection a long time, one of the books I shipped from India when I relocated to Germany ten years back. The book was recently in the news again – a translation in Tamil was just launched in Chennai. The Tamil version is based on the English one by Tim Parks, a translation of a translation. And if you think of Roberto Calasso’s work as a translation of ancient Indian myths, you can add another layer to it.