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of gods and demons ~ in (conflited) defence of the ebook

Let me think: how can I start this as controversially as possible?

Ah, I know!

I absolutely love paper books.

(How’s that for a hook, eh? Mmmm. Or maybe I could do even better than that…? Ah, that’s it! Scratch that.) 

I absolutely venerate my paper books.

Better. Much, much better. (And I smile.) But maybe I should explain, so let me start at the beginning.

I started reading very early, as much out of complete boredom as out of encouragement from different — if not competing — interests (let’s call it that) in my family. Thus, whereas my mother wanted to instil in me her love of books and her lifelong quest for learning things, experimenting, even if only vicariously, other realities, my Great-aunt and Grandmother highly welcomed any potential for having me safely sat somewhere under their watchful eye and away from any havoc and mischief. And let’s face it, the latter can’t have failed to equally appeal, when the time came, to my poor, work-addled mother.

Living at my Grandmother’s and Great-Aunt’s dilapidated farm, in an isolated and poor village in the early 1960s central Portugal, may have been, in retrospect, not much of a picnic, but for me it was proving paradise. Instead of a kitchen garden, I had fields and fields. And no walls. Just Emmental-emulating hedges beyond which laid the imponderability of creeks and pools, the unknown of farm animals, and the mysteries of sweet-smelling, pinewoods covered hills and valleys. A curious mischievous kid like me, I was in paradise. There was no end of things to satisfy my endless curiosity.

Paradise if soon gained was just as soon lost. All it took was the first time I joined with a gang of local unoccupied kids who had promised me the wonders of hand fishing in the local river, and I had been lost to the idea. Touching live fish? That I had to experience. And so I had disappeared from morning till evening, when the bells had already been calling for the end of the day. My old people were seething though hugely relieved. I was bemused: but the other kids, I had alleged again and again. To no avail. From that day on I had had long periods of supervised outdoors exploration, interspersed with what had felt like even more protracted periods of indoors cloistering.

hola-5-shah-persia-sorayaFirmly predisposed that my family had always been to the old adage that idle fingers make for the devil’s work, I am sure that my – let’s say, insatiably curious – nature made even sterner adepts out of all of them. Minding the safety of their knick-knacks and drawers, as much as that of the contents of their linen cabinets, and astute as my old people were, they started putting the odd “printed thing” in my hands, with the admonition “do not damage“. If I got along with those, I was told, I would soon get other, better and more interesting stuff.

Damage? I would never. That was far too good, far too valuable! All the undreamed of stuff that I was seeing, learning! I wouldn’t ruin that for the world! And better stuff than that? What? What could possibly be even better than that? I hadn’t believed my eyes when it had finally come, in their bright yellow liveries. All those animals! And all those flowers and trees! There was nothing like that anywhere in the village, and by then I had had a good enough exploring around to know. That was definitely worth more than gold.

national-geographic-magazines-from-the-1950sMy poor, poor old people! Had they realised what they had let themselves in for? Probably. And I had been thoroughly indulged. I had had all my multiplying questions answered, and all sorts of tales told about a world that one day I too would get to know, they said. And by the time I had started school later that year I had already been able to read and write – though, admittedly, nowhere near enough to read my ‘National Geographics’. But it was the promise of ‘one day’ being able to read all of that am much, much more that had spurred me on an on.

Having lived most of their lives in hardship and deprivation after a rather affluent start in life, they had taught me how precious book are, first and foremost because of their coveted content but not just. One of the reasons was their price, of course, as books — in the age before paperbacks — are expensive luxuries. Another reason was because they come from trees, and the more books were damaged or destroyed, more pine trees had to be felled to make paper for them. And that, I simply couldn’t have. I had shuddered at the thought of all those lovely pine trees that covered my hills — gone!

Censorship in 1970s Portugal

Censorship in 1970s Portugal

But perhaps the main reason books were precious, they told me, was because of their content, that thing I already seemed to covet so much.

Why, they had told me half conspiratorially, books were feared, sometimes even hated — and there were men, very powerful men, rulers of countries, who had decided books and newspapers and magazines were so dangerous that they had these people going over them to cut things out, or to forbid and burn them. 

Some, they had added and I had almost felt the shivers running down their spines, had even burned mountains of books in great public bonfires, alleging such writings were depraved and would poison people’s minds.

book burning by the Nazis

book burning by the Nazis

And did they? Were they? I had wanted to know.

Of course not, that is all sheer nonsense!, had been the quick reply. Knowledge never hurt anybody and never will!

Knowledge, they had added, cannot poison the mind, only give power. And that’s why those men acted like that, still act like that — because they had read all those books, and didn’t want anybody else to read them. That, they had added with finality, is how precious books really are. They give you knowledge, and knowledge is power.

And as if I had needed any more encouragement…


There had been an itinerant library coming to the village the second Thursday of every month, and as soon as I had been able to read well enough I had been unleashed loose on it. Every month I would check out a pile of books I thought had looked or sounded good, my arms full, tomes piled up high in front of my face, my feet tentative on the rounded cobbles of the road.

Some months I had been lucky, and upon inspection there had been only a loss or two. Some months I was so off the mark that I had had only a book or two left out of the whole pile. Whatever the case, I was sure I was their best customer; some months, I was their only customer. The old librarian always looked at me half impressed half irritated, wanting me there to justify the miles, wanting me gone with all my questions, so that she could return to her peace and quiet and go home early for dinner.

Soon I had learned how to read blurbs, not just to give me a feel of the story, but to ascertain whether the subject matter was not part of the long list of things I was not old enough to read. Even if I tried to sneak a enid-blyton-five-on-a-treasure-islandforbidden book past Auntie, chances were I’d be found out at a later stage; and there was no point in taking out books that I couldn’t read. And did I read! I didn’t read, I devoured. And then, sitting in the upturned grain measure in front of the hearth, I’d tell them excitedly all about what I had read, and they’d tell me what they thought, and then I’d read them bits, and then we’d talk some more…

To my mother’s chagrin I devoured Enyd Blyton instead of Homer or Ovid, Tintin and Astérix instead Verne or Andersen or Stevenson or Pérrault. Tales of animals and the marvellous instead of The 1001 Nights, or Gulliver’s Travels, or the Portuguese classics. To my old people’s contentment, I was reading suitable material that kept me quiet and out of their way, but somewhere where they knew where I was 20-mil-leguas-submarinasand what I was doing — and all while improving my vocabulary and learning skills. What was there not to approve of?

But the truth is, eventually I had devoured everything , from Anderson to Verne and from Robinson Crusoe to The 1001 Nights… and back again. So when the mobile library came less and less and then was finally discontinued, I wasn’t that upset: there was little left that I hadn’t already read, including many, many books the librarian had only very reluctantly let me have.

livro-o-veu-pintado-de-w-somerset-maugham-d_nq_np_11106-mlb20039926408_012014-fThey had been, of course, books ‘for adults’: Hawthorne, Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Camus, Júlio Dinis, Eça de Queiróz, Fernando Namora, Miguel Torga, whoever else.

I had no business reading those, the librarian had said again and again as I’d fib about the books being for my Auntie. She had issued them, however disinclined she had felt, trusting Auntie would set me straight; but by then Great-Aunt had no longer policed my reading as strictly as she had once done. As she once enigmatically told me, I had been on the right track.

The thing I remember better from all those earlier books was their paper, thick and grainy and luscious, smelling of the must of the upstairs living room, or of the damp of the unheated library van. I remember the smell of the books. Isn’t that amazing? I remember it as well as I remember fingering the sensuousness of that paper.  A tree that had been alive but which was now a different kind of companion, friend, teacher, and adventure, life, dream. How often did I fall asleep with a book hugged against my breast, as if a doll or my favourite yellow teddy? Long after I had grown up, I still did. And I still do.

I was an extremely reluctant — actively resistant! — convert to electronic books. I am one of those people for whom reading was a sort of a ritual, on a par with what going to a religious service is for some people. A ritual that is also, always, a feast of the senses as well as the mind. Its celebration requires, therefore, a number of immutable things: the right accoutrements (an armchair, a footstool, a blanket; a pair of glasses; a wide window or a reading lamp; soft background music, preferably involving a piano; and a book, of course), sundries ( fig biscuits or lemon shortbread; a pot of tea or lemon iced tea, or a flask of hot coffee or one of coffee lemonade, according to mood and season), a set of gestures (opening the book and balancing the spine on the half open hand, thumb firmly wrapped around it, turning the pages, fingering its corner first, shuffling slightly on the seat until optimal position is found, and then smell the paper and dive in the unknown of its ocean).

These very things I pointed out strenuously every time the word e-reader was mentioned, or Mr. He-Herder, ever so loving, suggested he would make me a present of one. No, no and no. A book is  a book. And reading without the feel of paper on my fingers, or the smell of the book, or the physical presence of the word in front of my eyes, printed on the smoothness of the paper… simply wasn’t reading.

But then life, this perennial game of herding cats, had intervened, and quite dramatically. I had jealously built a little ‘library; of my own over the years, books I had read but wanted to have to return to, books I wanted to read. Soon my ‘library’ was all read. Soon too it became difficult for me to hold a book for longer periods of time. Soon, my eyes were complaining of the strain. And I was spending a lot of time bedridden. Hell, I was spending a lot of time out of it, with the pain medication still not making any significant impact in my life. I was reading less and less, to Mr He-Herder’s disbelief. Not even books seemed to appeal to me anymore. But the fact was, I had got out of habit of reading fiction during my years of postgraduate study. Truth be told, I had got out of reading for pleasure altogether. Who wants to read a book to go to sleep after spending a whole day reading all sorts for learning? And when I had had that no more, and was reduced to a bed and grievously slashed memory and cognitive capacity, I had rebelled — and then I had cocooned. When I had needed books the most, I had silently forsaken them.

When Mr. He-Herder came home one afternoon with a Kobo, I was furious. Spending money on something I didn’t want? He got it hooked to the Gutenberg online library, and patiently showed me all the authors and all the classics I always talked about and the ones I had never read that could be found there. Plenty of reading material, he had pointed out. Plus the lending capability. Go on. Get into it… He had almost implored.

And I had tried. I’d given it a good go. The device was light on my hands, and easier to handle for a significant enough period of time to make a difference. It was easy to read, the type big enough not to strain my eyes. But it wasn’t the real thing, as I had complained one night. I missed the feel and smell of paper. Reading on the Kobo deprived me from a too important piece of the ceremonial of reading.

And you, with your supposed credentials of ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’! He had attacked when I had put the Kobo aside. And that had really stung.

And then one day we had looked at comprehensive entertainment options. We considered all that was available, and weighed the pros and cons of each, the political and laboral and environmental sins of each, and concluded that Pete’s as bad as Joe’s as bad as Tom. He-Herder spent time painting things in a favourable, desirable light to me, trying to tear down all the obstacles I cleverly tried to erect. Aren’t modern day smart phones and tablets and e-readers and whatnot notoriously environmentally unfriendly too…?  I threw in one evening.

So what are you going to do? Stay stuck in time? Stop living? Everything is a nightmare, these days. Some things you just have to like it or lump it. And where are you going to put more books? Buy a new house?

And that had been that. I had dug the Kobo out and looked closer at Amazon; I downloaded the app for the laptop, ‘just to give it a try and see how it is’ of course, and then we got ourselves an Unlimited account. The following Autumn, He-Herder bought us an early Christmas present: our two Kindles.

paper-book-versus-kindle-cartoonAnd so here we are. I’ve never read this much in all my life. I still have my paper books, which I cherish as if they are spoilt little gods, and guard them very jealously indeed. As we contemplate the possibility of leaving England in the wake of the disastrous Brexit referendum, I am beginning to slim down my book collection, though granted nowhere near as much as He-Herder thought I would given the Kindle. Culling my books has become the only source of brief, near-explosive arguments. But those I cull very easily and promptly.

What I found with the e-readers was freedom. Freedom to go away for a weekend or to spend time with my mother, and take a library with me. Freedom to have at my fingertips almost everything I can think of, but wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, or wish to buy. I can choose a book by reading a chapter out of it. I can find plenty of lighter reading without having to be complicit in the killing of trees.

I still have my ‘library’, and I’m still adding books to it. All the time. Some books I know I just have to have, feel and read the physicality of it, make them permanent members of my book court so that I can enjoy their company again and again. And it is still impossible for me to walk past the second-hand book stall at the local supermarket without coming home with an armful of titles.

Some of these second-hand books make it into our shelves. Some get read and taken away, back to some charity shop, to give someone else a chance to read it. I still sit with a good paper book in my hands, my feet up on the arm of the other sofa, a china cup full of steaming aromatic tea on the window sill, the boys all over me vying for a corner of my lap to curl up in. I still have the ritual. I still breathe in the scent that brings back memories, still finger the metamorphosed tree between my fingers. I still have the sense of being one in a chain of people who have loved that little book, and I imagine who the other hands that held it belonged to. And while I do that, the world is still whole, again whole.

For everything else, I have my ebooks. And my e-readers, of course. Like our phones, they’re as near to a one-off acquisition as it is possible; they will last us for years and years, and when they finally give up their little tech ghosts, we’ll make sure they will be suitably recycled. And I leave the still standing trees well alone.


a penny for your thoughts...

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