Prosecution: I provide experience. I provide a complete, sensory enjoyment – tangible, olfactory, visual and most of all, intellectual and emotional.
Defence: I provide convenience. My guilt is easily swiped, your guilt causes mold on old book-cases. I live, without asking to survive. I give, without asking to be appreciated. Even Amazon ratings are purely optional.
I finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on Saturday after an on, mostly off, slog for one and a half years. I was relieved to find reviews later that dealt with its length. What is curious about this book is, like myself, most people who managed to finish it, or have hopes of doing so in the near-to-distant future, struggled with its pace but couldn’t let it go altogether. The writing is highly self-indulgent, the main character not all-that-likeable, and yet there is such ambition in the book, to make a modern “pilgrimage”, that perhaps reviewers would have been less conflicted had it been an iPhone-free, historical novel. It’s beautiful, but it makes you struggle. One of its themes is procrastination. Another, having an object that is too cumbersome to have, to put it mildly, and too beautiful to get rid of. The Goldfinch has been my goldfinch.
A struggle I’m confident would not have been a struggle if I had read the ebook instead. My copy was a gift, and at the time, I didn’t think anything of its length, weight, thickness, font, writing style etc. I’ve read my share of light and ‘serious’ books in heavy-duty form, never struggling like this before. Like all those who have studied literature at university level, I have my secret catalogue of shame – books, mainly largish tomes, that remain in-completely read, but sufficiently opined over. It comes with the trade, but ebooks, somehow, just make the struggle easier.
Even if they aren’t always in a handy, ebook Reader form. The Kindle wasn’t launched in India when I was in university. And so I did what people did in the good, old days – I bought books from physical shops, borrowed from libraries, including electronic libraries. I read books as .txt and .pdf files on my computer. It was always a struggle, right from haggling over prices and making excuses over ‘late’ books in libraries. There was lending and borrowing books – I am very grateful towards the Kindle for solving that, because I have lost too many books to borrowers in my lifetime. There were too many lost books in general, due to life, moving, and other mysteries. It hurts to lose a .pdf, but losing a book, even one I didn’t like, hurts much, much more.
Reading ebooks are a grown-up, sobering experience. It would have been ironic for me to give up carrying the dead-tree, double-brick of The Goldfinch around, and replace it with the ebook, because the book is primarily about sentimentalism, especially towards objects. I sensed this from the earliest pages, which is why I never gave up, even if it gathered dust on my desk for months. I don’t afford other books such luxury. The first book I read on a Kindle, which is post many, many books read on computers, is the Victorian classic North and South. I was blown away by the 2004 BBC adaptation, and could not wait to go down to a shop and purchase a copy of the book. I borrowed someone’s Kindle, and read it ASAP. Perhaps, I might have dithered a little had it been a physical copy. I would have taken my time to obtain the approximately 600 page book, and then the physical exertion of carrying it would have slowed the process even further. But, I wouldn’t have noticed it, had there not been an alternative. Perhaps, it wouldn’t have taken so long with The Goldfinch – paperback, had there not been the option The Goldfinch – epub.
My self-indulgent writing here will explain my willingness to share the book’s sentiment. I am naturally made to go over the good, old days, even if I neither experienced them at their time, nor deliberately live through them even now. There are just people like this, who resist change, and want to hold on to what feels safe, and thus beautiful, for as long as possible. I didn’t want to give you the same old, same old ‘ebooks are great, physical books are passé’ and vice-versa, because I’ve gone through many of those heartbreaks already, like you have. Moving, losing people, losing cassettes and CDs, losing big chunks of memories, losing constantly, and gaining so much more than I can handle at the same time. No one has time to make sense of what we can preserve, what we can get over losing, because we are too busy waiting for what we can acquire. After all, I can acquire all those lost albums and books if I want to, in convenient digital form. And this time around, I will appreciate them in the moment, knowing that if they are lost again to me, I shall find them again. Just like in The Goldfinch, they too have become chapters in my life’s narrative, and will always come back to me – in a memory, if not in a tangible way – if I want them again. E-books would make things easier, though not necessarily better, for a medium of art that is solely dependent on sentiment.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or physical books?