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Skins and stories

[I wrote this on 16 August last year, but somehow never got around to posting it. I rediscovered it today in my iPhone’s Notes while looking for something else,and liked it enough that I decided I should post it.]

I came across an article the other day about ebook sales dipping (slightly), in contrast with print book sales rising (also slightly), bolstered, apparently, in part by the sales of colouring books. The article framed the discussion in terms of paper books versus ebooks, as if one were the antithesis of the other.

I also just had a brief exchange with a friend who’s helping us cat-sit; she’s leaving the country just as we’re returning, and had borrowed one of our books on the way out. A stray comment she made, that the book had probably been read because the pages were yellowed, got me thinking about the physicality and the idea of books.

When people talk about how they love paper books, and how an e-reader or a tablet will never replace paper, part of me rebels. I’ve read since I could remember being conscious; I—like almost every voracious reader I know—have read ketchup bottle labels, shampoo ingredient lists, the backs of cereal boxes, and other odd things when faced with an inexplicable lack of other reading material; I read like I breathe: involuntarily, obligatorily. But if all else were stripped away, it is the story that I love above all. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They’re how we construct ideas, our selves, our very conception of our experience as sentient beings.

The book is the skin of the human story. The ideas in it, the story in it, are the soul of humanity, of consciousness.

The scent of paper and glue and binding and ink, the dry shuffle and rasp of page on page, against your hand, the pleasure turning into dread as the weight of a book you’re enjoying alters its balance from your pinky to your thumb… to confuse the sensory delight of these things with the wonderful infection of ideas that is the heart of a book is to confuse the taste with a wrapper. You might as well venerate the finely blown bottle in which your wine resides (which I have done, nothing wrong with it), or the layers of rice paper and pastel wrapping in which your handmade mochi is presented (again, I’ve done that; the Japanese take presentation to beautiful heights)… but make no mistake: while you may enjoy the physicality of the thing, its essence resides elsewhere.

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The Shepherd’s Crown

I’m reading The Shepherd’s Crown, which has been sitting on my Kindle since launch day. I’d preordered it, but hadn’t had the heart to read it till now. My Kindle tells me I’m 90% through the book; I’ve tried to eke it out, I have, but it’s always the same when you read a Discworld book, you know.

You start slow, savouring the familiar characters, sinking into the Discworld again, so the first two chapters or so go by slowly. But then the story catches you, and before you notice, you’re a third into the book, and you think to yourself, “It’s okay, there’s plenty of book left, and anyway there’ll be another Discworld novel along in a year or two,” and you let yourself indulge a little because the ‘what happens next’ is so powerful.

Then the strands of story begin to come together and crash bang all that conflict begins to resolve and then you look up and go oh no, because you have less than one quarter of the book left. So you begin to slow down the reading, because oh god there’ll be another wait of a year or two before you have another deliciously new Discworld novel again.

Except this time, there isn’t, there won’t be, there can’t be. And I find myself unbearably sad that this is so.

“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (Discworld, #33; Moist von Lipwig)