My first acquaintance with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was through an extract published this spring in The New Yorker. Reading it, I felt like an eleven-year-old watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. I wanted to see more. The book, I learned, would be published “in summer”.
Summer arrived early, but the publishers kept their date fixed not to the season but to the calender. The weekend before the book’s release I scanned some reviews, avoiding parts that revealed the book’s contents, looking for whiffs of judgement. Everyone seemed to love it. On the day of its release, the Kindle edition on Amazon was prized at $3.50. Could this be true? For the price of two ice-cream scoops I could buy a new novel from a contemporary master of fiction? And it would be delivered instantly?
* * *
I do not own a Kindle, but the iPad at home has a Kindle App that lets me read Kindle eBooks on the iPad.
Let this be an experiment, I told myself, as I greedily purchased The Cat’s Table, Kindle Edition. Perhaps this would mark my transition into the world of eBooks, a step I had avoided this far.
* * *
Months later, I am still at “location” – the Kindle analog for “Page” – 235 of 3525. And I’m struggling to understand why.
* * *
Did I just say location 235? To be honest, I’m not so sure. Each time I click it open, I see a different number. At times this depends on how I hold the iPad, horizontally or vertically, and on other occasions the font size I choose determines the location. But even these things being equal, I sometimes get a different count when I open the eBook. Like a fortune wheel that turns to a different slot at each run. Others may find this cool, but it disturbs me. I like pages that are reliable, constant. The books on my shelf work that way.
* * *
On my iPad Kindle App, at the bottom of each page a group of icons offers additional options. I can set the display brightness, choose the font size, select a font colour and page background. I can highlight sentences, look up sentences highlighted by other readers. I can search for words or phrases in the book. An option called “Book Extras” leads me to a screen that shows a summary along different sections:
* Characters and people
* Settings and places
* Memorable quotes
* First Edition
Each section has a switch that allows me to “Show spoilers” or not.
Selecting a word anywhere in the text pops up an option to query a dictionary. The definition is displayed in a small strip, and below it are two links to Google and Wikipedia, offering more information, more distraction.
* * *
A book and the iPad lie on the table.
I can see the book’s title; I can’t see what’s inside my iPad.
To read the book:
1. I pick it up
2. Open the bookmarked page
3. Start reading
To read the eBook inside the iPad:
1. I pick up the iPad
2. Press the ON button
3. Slide the “unlock” bar
4. Swipe once to reach the screen with my Kindle App
5. Click on the Kindle App and wait for it to load
6. Click on the eBook in my library
7. Start reading.
* * *
The book on the table is a book.
The iPad on the table is a gadget.
With a gadget, like a Hi-Fi system or a TV, I have a different sort of relationship than the one I have with a book.
My affair with the book is personal, one-to-one, physical, intimate. As long as I’m reading the book, I do not share my attention or my affections with anything or anyone else: I am with the book, the book is with me, in my hands. We share a private universe, complete in itself.
Reading an eBook, I am with the gadget, which is a container. It may be smart, but it still is a container. It is not a book. I don’t feel it, and my attention is shared: with the gadget, and with the innumerable distractions the gadget offers. Due to these intrusions, it is no longer a private universe. I no longer feel I’m reading a book.
If my relationship with books is physical, how can I accept something in between? If I accept something like a gadget in between, it is no longer the same kind of relationship.
Reading a book out of a gadget is like trying to make love over Skype.
* * *
Think about that for a moment. I find it difficult to accept a new kind of relationship because I’m used to an old one, the one I’ve grown up with. The implication is clear: the value we place on physical books may not last long. For a new generation, a generation that hasn’t grown up with physical books, there is no sense of loss. If all you’ve experienced is sex over the Internet, how can you miss the real thing?
This also reveals why logic cannot fully explain my distaste for an eBook or an eReader. The reason is emotional — it cannot be rationalized; it can only be felt. At this point, an eBook seems to me like a compromise: a cheap, fast, light-weight alternative to the richness of a physical book.
Unless I’m desperate, this isn’t an option I’d consider.
* * *
John Updike, in his essay ominously titled “The End of Authorship”, writes about the edges of books:
Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained.
Edges of a book give it character, traits I can feel in my relationship with it. Here’s Alberto Manguel, writing about this in A History of Reading:
I too soon discovered that one doesn’t simply read ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’. One reads a certain edition, a specific copy, recognizable by the roughness or smoothness of its paper, by its scent, by a slight tear on page 72 and a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of the back cover.
The Cat’s Table, in its current form, has no edges, no scents, no tears. It exists, formless and spineless, somewhere in the gadget. The words and sentences are present, but it isn’t the book speaking to me, it isn’t me reading the book.
My affair with eBooks has ended before it could begin.