I had never heard of writer Alexander Chee before and now I find myself posting something he’s written for the second time this week. This time, he’s writing about books and reading and our relationship to both of them:
My books have moved with me from Maine to Connecticut to San Francisco to New York, to Iowa to New York to Los Angeles to Rochester to Amherst and now to New York once again. I’m a writer, also the child of two people who were each the ones in their family to leave and move far away, and the result is a life where I’ve moved regularly, and paid to ship most of my books so often I’m sure I’ve essentially repurchased them several times over. Each time I move, my books have grown in number. Collectively, they’re the autobiography of my reading life. Each time I pack and unpack them, I see The Phoenicians, a picture history book my father gave me as a child, and will never sell; the collection of Gordon Merrick paperbacks I shoplifted when I was a closeted teenager, stealing books no one would ever let me buy. The pages still retain the heat of that need, as does my copy of Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, bought when I was a star-struck college student at the Bennington Summer Writers’ Workshop 20 years ago. Each time they were all necessary, all differently necessary.
This is the sort of thing I’ve been writing and posting about here lately—the idea that the books we make should be the ones we want to keep, the ones we can’t seem to give away, the one that will have stories behind them. This has become an important decision for writers, publishers, and designers now as we decide what deserves to be printed and what should reside solely in electronic format.
Chee recently started experimenting with ebooks, first through the Kindle for iPhone app and then fully on his new iPad and he surprisingly enjoys the experience, though not without concerns:
As a writer and former bookseller, I understand the e-book’s imperfections and limits, and monitor the arguments that it will end publishing or save it, and potentially kill bookstores, which would kill something in me, if it were to happen. But I also believe that the book as we know it was only a delivery system, and that much of what I love about books, and about the novel in particular, exists no matter the format. I’ve lately been against what I see as the useless, overly expensive hardcover, and I admit I enjoy the e-book pricing over hardcover pricing. Still, I’ll never replace the books on those shelves, and there’ll always be books I want only as books, not as e-books, like the new Chris Ware, for example, which would be pointless on an e-reader. This really is just a way for me to have more.
The books we make now have to be worth making. Design can’t rise above its content and the artifacts we produce need to match the stories being told. But like Chee suggests, ebooks won’t kill traditional books, it’s simply expanding it.