Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book 'Em!

The first thing that I bought when I heard that I was pregnant with Amber wasn't a stuffed animal, or a baby toy or even crib - it was books.   The Miami Book Fair was in town and I wanted to get my baby books so that I could read to her because the idea of giving my child that love of literature was so important.   I dreamed of sharing classics that I had grown up with like Green Eggs and Ham and Are You My Mother? at bedtime and having my child snuggle up with a good book.   From the time that both Amber and Daniel were born, our bedtime ritual was to go into one of their rooms and read that latest Arthur or Junie B. Jones book and laugh together as we discovered their exploits.    They would follow along and then take the books and point to the photos and tell me what part of the story was going on.  I loved our ritual of bedtime stories - of new books from the library or the bookstore.  The smell of cover and paper when you crack the spine and turned the colorful pages.  You see the artistry that went into creating the story and paintings that match the words.  I thought about those times wistfully as I visited one the Barnes and Noble at the Forum a few days ago and realized that in the next five years, book stores and paper books will probably be quaint relics of the past.   Kindles and iPads are quickly replacing real books.  Why go to a real bookstore, walk around and buy a physical book when you can run a search, find the one you want and download it?  While I consider myself an environmentalist and should cheer for all the trees that will be saved, there is something inside me that hates the idea that in a few years the only way to read a new book will be to press my hand against a pad to turn the page.   While it will cut down on the hazard of paper cuts, there is just something about touching the pages of a real book that connects you with generations of people who gone before you and shared that same experience. 

I have loved books since I was a very small child.   Being a someone who spent their developmental years in the 1960's, Dr. Seuss was and still is all the rage.   I loved the The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, and Oh the Places You'll Go.  I loved touching the pictures and looking at the words.   I loved the colors, the simplicity of the pictures and the expressions on the character's faces.   I loved the rhythm of the words - it was not the repetition of Dick and Jane but they were fun rhymes that stimulated the imagination.   I loved the concept that "A person is a person, no matter how small."   For me, Horton hearing that Who meant that little Kelley could be heard above the noise of the adults - although as an adult I realize that there is way more to Horton Hears a Who then just an elephant with amazing hearing.  It has so many interpretations, for instance, it could mean standing up for what you believe in, no matter the cost.   It could mean that everything exists in it's own world and we have to respect what we can't see.  If you are pro-life - it could mean that life and a person begins at conception- no matter how small.  I guess that's why I have loved getting that second look at these books as an adult.  I can see now more than ever what a genius that Dr. Seuss was.  He took complex social issues and simplified them - the kids got a great way to learn to read and the parents got something to think about.  How many children's authors are able to do that today?   That's why he is one of the most popular children's authors of all time.   I still have a copy of Green Eggs and Ham that I bought for Amber and Daniel.  I look at it from time to time because I flat out love that book.

One of the very first books that I read to baby Amber was Good Night Moon.  It's amazing to me that when you talk to other parents about that book, we can all recite the beginning at the same time -  "In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon."  I remember her at six months helping me turn the page of the board book and laughing at the pictures of the bears and chairs and the little old lady whispering "hush."   I know that now on the pads, you can pick an option on whether you want to read it or have it read to you.  Call me old fashioned, I used to love having a book read to me by a real person in the room and having them ask me questions about it while we were reading it especially if it was the first time for both of us.  It was the same thing for my kids.   We'd come home from the library with a book like Micawbur by John Lithgow and discover the artistic ability of a squirrel who loved to watch painters through the windows of an art museum.  The illustrations were amazing and detailed - much more than you could ever glean off an iPad screen even if you scrolled to zoom in.   You had to look at it in it's entirety to fully appreciate the artistry of the illustrator.   Physically turning the page is also good for a child's dexterity. 

It's not just the loss of passing down those original sacred silly texts to the next generation that bothers me - it's also cook books.   How many of us have our grandmother's favorite recipe beautifully hand written on a recipe card that we pull out for special occasions?   You can see the splatters of past forays into the kitchen to make the dish - some from you and some from grandma and you feel connected.  Max has two cookbooks from his family that are well worn.  One of them - The American's Woman's Cookbook which was printed in 1946 gives you ways to pasteurize your own milk because in 1946 folks got fresh milk from their own cows and well - you needed to know how to do that.  The great thing about these cookbooks is that they are not afraid of carbs but the portions are much smaller than what we're used to now.  The other cookbook is the quintessential Joy of Cooking from 1972 - another cookbook that tells you how to throw wonderful dinner parties that includes such staples as Swedish meatballs with four kinds of meat that you grind together using your own meat grinder.  Thumbing through these cookbooks you can see that the muffin recipes were popular as well as the salmon puffs and pot pies based on the amount of splatter on those pages.   That's what I love - life happened on these pages and life got messy.   You simply can't have that happen with your Kindle or Nook or you might be replacing it because that gravy got a little out of hand and splashed on the device that also has your copy of 50 Shades of Grey downloaded on it.    Sure, you can replace your Nook, Kindle or (gasp), your iPad if something gets on it, but it's a hell of a lot easier to replace a $15 cookbook then a device that costs $250 or more.   What's even scarier is that the earlier versions of those books will disappear completely and we'll only have the latest greatest so that sense of historical reference will be erased.  Whose going to download the 1972 version of the Joy of Cooking when you can get the 2012 version with calories, carb, fat and protein counted up for you?

Of course, I realize the irony of mourning the end of paper books on a blog in which my words are electronic and my stories are read on computers, iPads or smart-phones, but the idea of not being able to hand down a book that you physically touched to the next generation really makes me sad.   Borders Bookstores are gone and the Barnes and Noble just down the street from us closed after being in business for 15 years.  Going to the library has always been a fun family event and now I wonder if that is something my kids will be able to do with their kids.   Libraries and publishers are trying to figure out this brave new world - how to lend electronic books.  Seriously, do you need a physical building when you can just download a book in a few seconds?  For us, the library has always been this great place of knowledge where my kids can hear stories and learn about authors and that way of life is slowly being extinguished in the name of progress.  In many places, next to churches, libraries are central gathering places.   But as downloading becomes more common, you lose that connection with people who can help recommend a book in person rather than in a chatroom.  Let's face it, your 500 friends on Facebook are not your really good friends and being part of a chat in a chat room is not really honing good social skills.     Being able to be physically in the library or bookstore and touching the book and leafing through it is one of my favorite things to do.  How do you know that you'll like a book if you can only look at a small portion of it on-line before you buy it?  I love getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks and thumbing through a book before I buy it to make sure I'll actually read it. 

But as much as I might not care for this new world, it's going to happen whether I like it or not even if we save countless trees who give their lives only to have the book that once sold for $20 sit on the bargain bin reduced to $2.95.  In the next few years, authors won't need to have a print copy of their books to go on tour and can probably just do tele-interviews or tele-seminars to sell their books.   They'll need to include cool interactive graphics to compete in this short attention span world we live in.   Paper books will line shelves more as decoration then as one of the oldest forms of entertainment.   My hope is that children's books will probably still be printed because I have a hard time believing that a parent is going to hand their toddler an iPad and not worry that it can be destroyed.   A $10 board book of The Runaway Bunny seems like a much safer choice if your toddler is teething and drools all over the everything.  When you've survived through storms and electric outages from hurricanes like I have, the advantage to books is that they don't have to be plugged in to work.   You can sit on the plane and keep reading a book even after the flight attendant has asked everyone else to turn off their electronic devices.   So while Alec Baldwin might be escorted off a flight for playing Words with Friends, I'll be able keep reading my paperback version of Bossypants and find comfort with a real book that has always been my friend.

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