In Defense of the Paperback

20 Nov


When Don Quixote and his cohort Sancho Panza bumbled upon the scene of la Mancha and the Western literary tradition, they did more than stumble upon countless misadventures in search of the lovely Dulcinea del Toboso, for out of their misadventures emerged a new form of art. Don Quixote may have mourned the Romance epics his well-meaning friends burned in the pyre, but out of these ashes rose the novel, a phoenix of the Western literary realm that continued to grow and swiftly navigated through the entirety of Europe in less than a century.

Initially thought a novelty and snubbed by Oxfordians who preferred their literature in Greek and Latin verse, the novel refused to die. It became the means through which Jane Austen would create tiny microcosms that revealed the eccentricities of social macrocosms; through which Dickens would create beloved orphans, spirits, and curmudgeons that revealed the meaning of a well-lived life; the means through which the Russians would relate the struggle of the human experience; the means through which Stoker and Shelley would haunt us, Wodehouse would entertain us, and Kafka would puzzle us. Milan Kundera said it best: “In its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one . . .”

Four hundred plus years after Cervantes’ literary genius flew through the mechanisms of the Gutenberg press, the novel is the most read form of the literary tradition in the Western world. Some would argue, and have argued through the last century, that the novel is dead, that its progress has long reached its height, and that it is a buried art form. I refuse to accept this argument – the evidence of the novel’s continual life is on the bookshelves of your local bookstore monopoly. The evidence is in the countless copies of Harry Potter translated for children world-wide. The evidence is in the brilliant novels that have been emerging from the East and from the third world since the middle of the last century. The novel began in the West, but it is a means through which Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Pamuk. and Achebe have been able to capture the world with the stories of their protagonists. The novel will not die; it’s form will metamorphosize, yes, but it will not be brushed out the door with the simple stroke of a broom.

I write this in defense of the literary form itself, but any bibliophile will admit that the love a book isn’t only the love of the art. It is also the love of much worn copies of Proust, Poe, Kafka, and Camus that sit upon a well-lined bookshelf overstuffed with novels from decades of reading. It’s the smell of pages, robust with memories of bedtime stories, cold winter nights, or literature classes. It’s the inscriptions from friends and ex-lovers that adorn the first page, notes in the margin that convey a conversation with authors and characters, and earmarked pages of memorable lines. It’s the feel of the pages turning in one’s hand, the rolled-up copy one stuffs in a bag and then lovingly pulls out at the beach. It’s the cheap copies and the rare copies and the new hard-bound copies.

I reflect upon this after listening to an interview on NPR with Stephen Kindell of amazon.com. Amazon has just launched the Kindell, an electronic device wherein one can order books online, download them to the $400.00 device, and read their novels electronically via a most unfriendly hand-held device. Kindell maintains his device will change the way people read. And perhaps he’s right regarding blogs, news, and magazines (though I can’t imagine how one might cut a humorous New Yorker cartoon from an electronic magazine page and tape it to the refrigerator or send it to a friend). Regarding the novel, however, I believe he is wrong. Though people may not even realize it, the feel of a novel in one’s hands is as much a part of the reading experience as the words of the text within.

The Gutenberg press allowed the opportunity for everyone, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, to read, to learn, to be entertained. Books were no longer an advantage that only the wealthy could afford and reading was no longer an activity in which only scholars could engage. Books, and therefore novels, were put into the hands of readers across Europe, and today the entire world. I don’t think I’m being an Oxfordian or a traditionalist when I say that I don’t think the world is willing to have their books taken out of their hands.

While the form of the novel will change with the ages, the form itself will not die, nor will the tactile object itself. Though often it is said that the cyber-world will replace the way we read news, information, and entertainment, those who truly love to read for the experience of delving into a well-written story will not trade in their paper-backs for a screen copy. Mr. Kindell should look elsewhere for an audience – he clearly doesn’t understand a true Reader.

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3 Responses to “In Defense of the Paperback”

  1. Anonymous November 21, 2007 at 6:37 AM #

    very well written!

  2. Nerevised November 25, 2007 at 1:00 AM #

    Your writing is immaculate. I agree completely that the sensation, smell and sound of an old paperback novel adds more to the experience of reading. What about the next generation, who will think that an electronic bookreader is the norm? They won’t know what they’re missing out on.

  3. Sarcastic Mom (aka Lotus) December 2, 2007 at 8:58 PM #

    Please forgive me, I haven’t read this post, I’m in a bit of a hurry… just wanted to respond to your question immediately.

    I will definitely continue Weekly Winners – I was doing it well before NaBlaBlah started. 😉

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