Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Dubious Scent of Books by Catherine Czerkawska

The new - and the really old!

I used to have a favourite independent bookstore. This was many years ago, long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye and it was run by a couple of people who loved books and writers too. You could go in and chat. They knew local writers and helped to promote them. They got to know their customers and could offer suggestions. Then, one of the big chains moved in over the road with their high staff turnover, their front of shop table displays for which publishers paid handsomely and their three for two offers. When they complained, they were told ‘business is business’ and that was that. Within a year they had closed. Those of us who resolutely kept on shopping with them were clearly in a minority.

Cue forward some years. I’m browsing in the big Borders in Glasgow just along the road from Central Station. The cafe – Starbucks as I remember it – is nice. Sometimes I meet people there. The store is pretty good too. Back then I often browse and buy. There are hand-written staff recommendations. One or two of my books are in there as well. I surreptitiously put them face out, as you do.

Time passes. We live in the countryside but I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Glasgow. Borders has changed though. You have to hunt for books on the ground floor. They are tucked away. I remember noticing newspapers and magazines, diaries and notebooks (not that I don’t like notebooks because I do – most writers do, I think) giftwrap and greetings cards and lots of weird barely book related stuff in glossy boxes, as well as cookery and gardening books, sporting auto (sic) biographies, acres of celebrity tat. Sometimes I browse and take a book to the checkout, but the tills upstairs are seldom open, so I go downstairs to be met by a queue of Soviet proportions and two cash points open. Then I dump whatever I’ve picked up, go home, order off Amazon. Mostly this is because I have a train to catch rather than from any more sinister 'showrooming' intention. Latterly though, I think I’ve lost my marbles because I find my eyes glazing over in there. It’s only when I meet a friend on the train - one I know to be an eclectic reader - and he says to me suddenly, ‘Catherine, do you find yourself looking round Borders and not seeing anything at all that you want to buy?’ and I’m forced to agree with him. Nevertheless, I’m sad when Borders closes. Just a bit. Kind of sad to see it go. But not devastated. Certainly not devastated.

strange, musky, dusty ...
Time passes again. Somebody buys me a Kindle. I open the box and am instantly hooked on the device. What’s not to like? I mean people keep going on and on about the smell of books, but the only books I possess that smell nice in – er – my book, are those old, musty, dusty books I love. I’ve a collection of ancient volumes of Burns’s poetry and other books about the poet and I know they might not smell nice to everyone, but they smell good to me. Extreme age. I like that scent. But then I also like the strange, musky, dusty, sneeze-inducing scent of Victorian paisley shawls! So I can see the attraction, but the ‘smell’ of new books? Even my books? Not so much. Do they smell of – well – anything much at all? Not really. Not after the first few moments.

A couple of years later, my husband gets me a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. This time, it’s a coup de foudre: love at first sight. Now, although I still read paper books from time to time, I realise that I hardly buy new books at all. I download novels and stories onto my Kindle and if I find something I truly love and know I want to keep, as an object, as opposed to something I enjoy reading but will never read again, I may buy a paper copy. But in reality, this doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes – like those dusty books of Burns’s poetry – I buy online, from antiquarian sellers. These are often dealers who may or may not have shop premises. It amazes me how ignorant people are of just how many medium, small and micro-businesses are facilitated by the likes of Amazon and eBay. I sometimes buy new paperback books by friends, mostly at events where they are reading, and I think it might be good to have a signed copy. Otherwise, the Kindle is where it’s at for me. I can change the font size and the spacing at will. I can read in bed at night without switching on the light. I can fall asleep and my Kindle falls asleep too, and when I wake it up again, there it is, just where I left off reading. Even when I'm reading several books at the same time. I could sell these devices. 

Now, when I do readings myself, people come up to me and say they’ve got the book on their Kindle. Sometimes they say it quite loudly, within the hearing of the bookstore rep and I feel a faint stirring of guilt. I want to say ‘shshsh’ but I don’t. Because if I'm being truthful I don’t mind too much. And besides, I know that if they have bought the paperback, they will very likely pass it around three or four of their friends, possibly more, whereas if they have got the download, and it’s inexpensive enough, they will very likely tell three or four of their friends about it – and then it will be ‘jam for Georgie’ as one of my favourite authors says. (Can you guess who? No prizes, but lots of stars!)

I also realise that I’m reading more than I have read since I was young. I read voraciously these days, book after book, sometimes waking up in the night, opening my Kindle and just getting in a few chapters when I can’t bear to leave a book alone or when I’m sleepless.

I’m publishing in paper as well as eBook form though (with more to come) and I still go back to the chain bookstores from a sort of lingering sense of guilt, a hankering after that old indie bookstore where I knew the people and they knew me and we could talk about the books we loved. Some bookstores are still like that and greatly to be cherished. I love them, and visit them and buy books in them, even when I know I have too many books in the house altogether. 

But any residual guilt about downloading - legally, of course - has gradually dwindled away. Tonight I found a writer online, who had been recommended to me, one who had written a whole string of novels. I wanted the first in a long series. Would I have found it in my local bookstore? It was some ten years old. So I doubt it. And if, as has happened several times so far this year, I get hooked on a writer and gallop through his or her books, I want the next one now, not next Wednesday when I’m going into town. I want instant gratification. Most voracious readers do. I find it very hard indeed to feel any kind of guilt about this, because guess what? As a writer, that’s what I want too. I desperately want any reader who finishes one of my books and thinks, ‘what else has she written?’ to move smoothly on to whatever else is available while I get on with writing the next one. Don't you?



Visit my website at www.wordarts.co.uk and my blog at http:wordarts.blogspot.com



9 comments:

madwippitt said...

Well if you want to chat to other writers and readers you could always do something really revolutionary like ... trot along to your local library. Providing it hasn't been shut down by lack of government funding of course ...

Elizabeth Kay said...

I've realised that I'm reading a lot more too, since I've had a Kindle. I'm buying a lot more books as well, which has to be good. This has come as a bit of a surprise.

Bill Kirton said...

Strangely, I find I'm reading less. I've no idea why because I love being drawn into a book and losing myself there. I agree with everything you say about Kindles (and iPads for that matter), but I still prefer - by a very long way - the totality of the experience of reading a 'real' book. I can't explain it. It's not smell but it's definitely feel, it's page-turning, it's the contrast between the thickness of the wedge of paper in left and right hands, it's the uniqueness of the object. The Kindle is great but it's not the book; it's just a transmitter with queues of other books waiting to come through.

Chris Longmuir said...

This really strikes a chord with me, and I would have said until recently, that although I read mainly on my Kindle I still preferred paper books. That is, until I came back from one of the conferences I attend with the goodie bag that everyone gets, and in it was one of my favourite authors. So I read the paper book, and you'd never believe it, but I found myself yearning for my kindle, I couldn't wait to finish the book so I could get back to it. But I do find that if I read a reference book I like on Kindle, I'll buy the paperback or hardback of the same title to keep on my bookshelves. Oh, and like you I'm reading a lot more, because the kindle's so easy to transport and pick up and put down.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I feel the same, Chris. I sometimes wonder if it's because I do a lot of my general reading in bed - last thing at night, early in the morning and quite often in the middle of the night as well. Whenever I try to read a paper book in these circumstances, I find myself getting irritated by the physical object. I've fallen out of love with it. Hardbacks are even worse. I find especially with eBook fiction that I love the way nothing gets between me and the story. I'm reading a lot more. But I do the same as you with reference books.

Reb MacRath said...

Catherine, I love this post and hope you include it in the next AE anthology. Your remarks about your changed relationship to book stores struck a special chord: I worked for a decade with two indie stores, one of which went bankrupt. As you've pointed out so well, more than the economy is at work. Thanks to Amazon, we also relate to our books in New ways.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Reb. I still regret the loss of that small indie book store in our town - but as you say, it had nothing to do with Amazon.

julia jones said...

I owned a small independent bookshop and the main trouble was that it was such hard work doing all the business side that there was insufficient time to read -- let alone write. I loved it though and can never feel the same about reading on a kindle. I do it, I appreciate its cheapness, portability, accessibility etc etc but I simply don't remember what I've read so well. I think it's my lifetime training - I've got too used to remembering by position on the page. I like to be able to flick through and pounce on a particular paragraph or phrase. I know I can do all that with highlights and go-to etc but it doesn't work so instinctively as it would if I'd been doing it all my life.

Lydia Bennet said...

I'm totally with you Catherine, that's just how I feel about my kindle, just returned from travelling and my kindle is perfect for that too. I read in bed before falling asleep too!