From Gutenberg to Rosamilia
Books have come a long way. They used to be written and copied by hand which took years working at it full time. That’s why medieval Europe left that work to monks: because you couldn’t possibly earn a living doing such work and someone had to feed you, house you and clothe you while you occupied yourself in such a mad and tedious pursuit. Imagine sitting there in the same room day after day from morning ‘til night for months on end just writing a book. You’d have to be nuts, or getting there.
And when you were finished with it all you had was the one book. If you wanted a second copy you had to start all over again or pass it on to other monks who copied and recopied you in the same silent room, year after year, quietly going insane, until some Viking burst in and stuck a sword through your guts, stole your gold crucifix and grabbed your book on his way out—as an afterthought—to wipe his butt with your pages. That was the best use he could find for your life’s work because he couldn’t read but he sure could use some toilet paper.
Then Old Joey Gutenberg rigged up a way to write a book just once with some letter blocks like the ones you played with as a child. The idea was to wet those blocks with ink and press some paper over them and voilà, the birth of the printed page. And you could print as many copies as you wanted if you had the materials. The hand-made paper, bought and sold by weight even after being printing upon, was worth more than the content you printed on it.
You see, anybody could string some words together but not everyone could pay for the paper. And don’t even get me started on the cost of binding those pages into a book. Most books printed from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries don’t survive today because the printing and binding of books were two separate endeavours, the second of which was extravagantly expensive. Many people could scrape together a few coins to buy a book from their local printer but only the wealthy could afford to have those pages bound.
I am a life-long book reader/lover/collector—thirty years of rummaging through dusty used book shops and even dustier thrift stores all over North America, chatting it up with dusty old book dealers who used to be bibliophiles like me before they spent decades up to their eyeballs in the damned things.
I’ve spent my life buying and reading them, organising and shelving them, packing and moving them over and over—sometimes clear across the continent. I’ve spent a small fortune just keeping my books housed and shelved and near me, on top of the small fortune I’ve spent acquiring them.
At its peak my collection ballooned to twenty thousand volumes before shrinking back to a more reasonable twelve or thirteen thousand books. I achieved my childhood dream of living in a home that looks and smells like a used book shop, similar to the first one I frequented as a kid in my old neighborhood.
When that shop closed after fifty years in business I bought up their remaining stock at pennies on the dollar and took home one of their shelving units that had been hand-built by the shop’s original owner, the nice old man from whom I purchased my first books: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, Lovecraft, Zelazny, Donaldson, Wolfe, Steve Jackson, Choose Your Own Adventure, Dungeons & Dragons modules and stacks of comic books.
My love of books can be traced to that old shop. I fell in love with them for the imaginary worlds they transported me to and I learned to love books as objects, the look and feel of them, the smell of them, and I loved my own lust for them, how I wanted mountains of books so that I could read whatever I wanted whenever I felt the urge and they would all be there at my fingertips. I didn’t understand how any book dealer could stand to part with any of them.
Now, decades later, I’ve come to realise that actually owning thousands of books is a total pain in the ass. And no matter how many thousands of them you accumulate you’ll never have every book you want and you’ll never find the time to read them all anyway.
Even once you’ve got them all in your apartment they’re not truly at your fingertips. That familiar book you just saw mentioned in an online post, one that you know you’ve got somewhere has to be found in your giant mess that’s attracting paper-eating bugs and trapping humidity to form mold. That one book you remember buying half a lifetime ago and suddenly want to read could be randomly placed in that massive pile of painfully heavy boxes in the corner, the ones you never got around to unpacking after your most recent move.
So I’ve been selling off chunks of my collection. It’s simultaneously a relief and heart-breaking. I feel the weight of them off my shoulders but I miss them already, even the ones I haven’t sold yet. I don’t want to see them to go but I can’t wait to be rid of the damned things. I have become the crusty old man sitting in his dusty book room both in love with and burdened by his rows upon rows of wonderful, beautiful, smelly, heavy, endlessly tiresome books.
After many jobs and a couple of small businesses of my own I now work full time for a national chain of book sellers. I live in a large apartment surrounded by my vast collection of books that I’ve always wanted to read or reread. In my spare time I’m working on my first novel. More so than at any time in my past my whole life right now is all about books in various aspects: as objects to be treasured, as a commodity to be consumed, as an outlet for creativity and a labor of love.
A few weeks ago I bought my first e-reader. Mostly I bought it for my wife, who’ll be spending this summer visiting family overseas. She’s a voracious reader who can devour a six-hundred-page fantasy novel in forty-eight hours or less. She can read clean through a prolific author’s career within a few weeks. The e-reader is a way of providing her with a summer’s worth of reading material without dragging an entire suitcase of books along with her. Also, I’d been itching to read a few novels that I know are only available as e-books (Thraxas books nine and ten, among others).
Within a few days we were fighting over this amazing device. I can tweak the font size and light up the screen to read in the dark so my wife’s sleep isn’t disturbed by a bright lamp. It remembers where I stopped (every time!) so I don’t waste precious reading minutes on the bus or subway figuring out where I left off. It’s the same size and weight as a single mass market paperback but it can contain more books than I have in this whole apartment and I can carry them around with me everywhere and read any one of them with a touch of my fingertip to the screen.
I was one of those people you hear saying they’re not interested in e-readers because it’s not the same as the feeling of a printed book in your hands. And those people are right, it isn’t the same—it’s better.
I went from averse to astounded in less than a week, after a lifetime devoted to the printed book. From now on I want to read everything on this e-reader. I never want to read a big, heavy hardcover book again. I’m ready to sell every one of these bound paper volumes, keeping only my autographed copies and rare editions.
I wish every book ever made in the history of civilization were available as an e-book. Many are. In fact, there are millions of books available as safe, legally free downloads online without even touching any illegal file-sharing websites, and millions more available for purchase, all mine to browse without the hassles of obtaining and storing a physical book.
The first book I read on my new e-reader was Darlene Bobich: Zombie Killer by Armand Rosamilia. I thought it appropriate since Armand and I met (eleven years ago, Holy Shit!) through a discussion forum about books and writing. Our first encounter was over a transaction in which I handed over some of my hard-earned cash for a stack of his early fantasy novels (keep growing in popularity, my friend, while I sit on these rarities of increasing value) and I’ve followed his burgeoning career with interest ever since.
A whole new world of indie authors whose works are only available in e-book form are now open to me thanks to this wonderful device. I can participate in the publishing revolution happening online right now and feel even more immersed in the industry of storytelling than I already was.
The future of how those stories are disseminated is literally in the hands of readers and authors rather than being decided upon by a few big corporations and I’m now one of those readers. Lately I’ve been working for the man again after two failed businesses but maybe in time I can change that and in the meantime I can help change the lives of indie authors. The power to do that is in this little device I bought on a whim. It is small but it contains multitudes.
I’ve always said we live in a great age. I wouldn’t want to live in any other, except maybe the zombiepocalypse…