The Dawn of the Yawn: Let’s not argue about e-books vs. print, OK?

Enemies of Reading May 29, 2014 0 Comments

Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

by Hugh Gilmore

I don’t know how we got slingshotted from the argumentative early days of Kindle to now, the dawn of the yawn, but here we are. E-books are here to stay.

I just went back in my files to see when it was that I put out a public appeal through this column, asking to borrow someone’s Kindle. I wanted to “test drive” one without having to spend the $139 a basic model cost then. The year was 2010. Remember way back then?

To add gravity to my consumer stunt, I declared I’d test the device by reading “Madame Bovary.” My thinking was that since “Madame Bovary” is such a stirring, and beautifully written book, it would push the machine to its limits.

A friend met me at a restaurant, downloaded the book before my eyes, in all of 90 seconds, (for 99 cents) and showed me the on/off and to/fro buttons. I couldn’t wait to try it out. Once home, I learned how to operate the Kindle in about a minute, another aspect of its simplicity that impressed me.

I thought it was a great experience. After I got over a number of petty beginner’s annoyances, I very much enjoyed reading “Madame Bovary” in electronic format. In fact, since I didn’t have to give the book back right away, I ordered a few more titles and read them too. For three weeks I read only on a Kindle – over a thousand printed pages. I started dreading having to give it back to my friend. Like eating potato chips, as they say – as soon as I finished one, I wanted to devour another.

E-books were a frequent and controversial topic among my friends and acquaintances back then. Kindle vs. Nook? Print vs. electronic ink? The war now seems over. The topic is never discussed. Most people I know have an e-reader of some kind. I personally am on my fourth Kindle. The first three died. I don’t care.

I like the new “Paper White” version a lot. I use it situationally: at the gym, doctors’ offices, anywhere I have to wait and want the portability of being able to slip my “book” out of my pocket. In the evening I prefer holding a print book, but if I am to find the print version, or am in a hurry, I get the Kindle text and read that.

On vacation I take the Kindle, primed with some books I want to read, but go into bookstores anyway, once I arrive at my destination, and buy print books. Still my preference.

About three times in the past year I’ve ordered hardback books from the library or a bookseller and found that they were printed in excessively small print. I couldn’t read them without straining. As an alternative, I ordered the Kindle version and 90 seconds later had the book in hand, ready to read after I adjusted the font size. A great feature, superior to print books in that way, without a doubt.

One of my hesitations back in the Stone Age was that publishers and online booksellers were Best Seller top-heavy. I couldn’t find books of the kind I like to read. That problem has eased up considerably and gets better every day. In fact, many out-of-print books have been given new life by being offered in e-book form.

Back in 2012 Jonathan Franzen was quoted as saying that he preferred print books. E-books, he said, lacked “permanence.” Today there are more Franzen items for sale in e-book format than in print. The same is true with many neglected classics.

Nonetheless, a number of notable literary works are still not for sale as e-books. A small sample would include, most notably, Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” and John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.”

Until this past month the same would be true of Harper Lee’s enduring classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But HarperCollins Publishers has recently announced that it has acquired e-book and digital audio rights to Harper Lee’s beloved classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee, now 88, had resisted these formats until now, saying through her publishers, “I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was first published on July 11, 1960, by Philadelphia’s J.B. Lippincott and Co. It won the Pulitzer Prize that year and has gone on to sell 30 million copies in English worldwide. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and still sells more than 1 million copies yearly.

The e-book version will be available as a straight text e-book and as an enhanced e-book with extra exclusive content. (An “enhanced” e-book includes embedded illustrations, videos, voice-overs and sound effects. They cost more than the straight text and are often packaged like gift books.) The digital audio will be narrated by Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek.

These releases are scheduled for July 8, just a few weeks from now, to coincide with the 54th anniversary of the book’s original publication. Getting into the spirit of things, Lee said, “This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

What the heck. She’s earned the right to spout a marketing slogan. I’m picturing a scene where HarperCollins convinced her to sell the electronic rights by stressing that idea. Anything that promotes reading good literature is fine by me. And, for the time being, at least, we still can choose whatever medium we prefer.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.