My problem with The Cat’s Table

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
* Awards
* 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.

13 thoughts on “My problem with The Cat’s Table

  1. Hey, the link you left was for a hardcover edition. It’s a tad more than what you paid for the Kindle edition, but even that price is $12 now. Order your hardcover and enjoy.

    Personally, I adore my Kindle, but diversity is a good thing.

  2. Personally, I now prefer ebooks just for the convenience of reading it anywhere and at anytime. Of course, the distractions offered by the iPad are a strong argument against ebooks but if you get a Kindle (the old one not the Fire), those disappear. I too own an iPad but have been meaning to get a Kindle just for that reason. But I’ve maxed out my gadget quota for this year 🙂

    1. I hear that! Even the Kindle keyboard had games now. I don’t play them unless my kids join me, but I will always love my Kindle. I still want the Nook tablet ad soon as I can afford it. Release is 11/15, but I will have to wait.

  3. I so completely agree with you on this. Don’t own expensive gadgets, but read 2 e-books out of compulsion, on my office pc, it was nothing like the real thing ! Books are personal. The gradually yellowing pages become a part of our lives, it’s meant to be that way, at least for me.

  4. Hmm. Passionate and provocative as ever. I have a new Kindle, as yet unused. I wonder how I’ll feel when we’ve spent some time together.

  5. Is it on the iPad where you can “turn” the page by swiping your finger across the screen?

    Why this total immersion in simulation? It’s not just total, it’s fantastical, even metaphysical.

    I haven’t tried any e-reader yet, so all I can say to this post is: I know.

    P.S. Sorry to have been away for so long.

  6. Steps to read an e-book on a *real* e-book reader:

    1. Pickup Kindle
    2. Switch on – automatically opens to page where you left reading.
    3. Start reading.

    Plus no other distractions. IMHO, the iPad/computer interface hardly provides a fair e-book reading experience.

    Of course, the sentimental attachment to real books is a different issue. I still like holding and reading a real book, but the Kindle offers conveniences (especially while traveling) that are difficult to ignore.

  7. Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

    I wrote this post to explore why I felt the way I did about reading The Cat’s Table on the iPad; the larger argument, about eBooks and eReaders in general, was less important, and the reason for this is also evident in the above comments: both books and gadgets provoke passionate reactions from those who love either of them. It is, in the end, a personal and subjective matter, and I assumed that these intensely personal reasons (for why we like or dislike something) are more interesting to read than a general essay on the topic.

    The broader point, then, is that both books and eReaders will be around in the near future, and so will the debate about their relative merits.

    1. Somehow I missed this one…I’m not sold either. And part of it is just a physical problem: I have read e-books on my laptop (too static, too cumbersome) and on my phone (ultimately portable, but too small) and not liked either experience except for the convenience of it. I don’t want to own a lot more physical books, but it’s simply a form that works,and has worked for a long time, for very good reasons. Once your frustration is over, I wonder if you’ll tell us what you thought of Ondaatje’s latest.

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