The older boy wanted to go to the book fair at Printers Row last Sunday, but by the time we set down our books and mobilized to leave, it was almost 3 p.m., barely enough time to properly see the thing.
Besides, it looked like rain.
Still, why not? We hopped in the van and got downtown just in time for the downpour.
Yes, it was grim, at first, to see all the old volumes, with wet plastic sheets hastily drawn over them, the white tents shivering in the wind.
“At least, it won’t be crowded,” I said, as we entered the sprawling fair. Who goes to a book fair late on a chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon?
Lots of people, it turns out. The place was jammed. You had to struggle for a place before all that delicious printed bounty.
After a few hours, as we headed back to the car, laden and happy, I realized something obvious: It’s silly to worry about the future of books because we have plenty. Even if they stopped printing them tomorrow, now that everybody gets their entertainment by endlessly watching the same video of a kitty caught in yarn, it isn’t as if we don’t have enough books. You could spend 10 lifetimes reading the ones we’ve already got. A lovely thought.
Welcome to the present
“What are you reading, Dad?”
A simple question from my younger son, 13 — golly! — as of last week. Two teens, God help me.
I was sitting in the wing chair, a book held in my left hand.
But the answer was not so simple, because it wasn’t a proper, printed book, like the ones I’ve been reading for the last 45 years, but a Sony Reader.
“Umm, The Informationists, I think,” I said, fumbling with the red metal case, turning it over, dumbly, as if the title might be on the back. It wasn’t. Guessing, I hit one of the five thin buttons, the one with a house on it, The text flashed away, and seven icons appeared. The upper left icon was an open book with The Imperfectionists — A Novel.
“The Imperfectionists,” I said, giving the actual title of the Tom Rachman novel, a newspaper tale that I picked as my first foray into the e-book world which, I’m sorry to report, will definitely eclipse print someday soon.
Escape from Mayberry
The Book Bin is a charming little independent book store in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook. It has comfy chairs and friendly staff and the best new titles.
With small bookstores facing the abyss, of course, I assumed I’d eventually wave the flag for the Book Bin, not only out of general principles — bookstores are good — but also for selfish motives. The place is a few blocks from my house, and I like to wander over, paw the books and chat with owners Janis and Lex Irvine, who have run the place for nearly 40 years.
My plan was to wait until Borders went out of business and then happily ruffle the fur of this plucky survivor while lecturing on the merits of being small and sturdy.
But six weeks ago Janis Irvine did something that spurred me to immediate action. She started offering those buying an electronic book from her store a Sony Reader to read it with, on loan for free.
“I had a customer come in, and she said, ‘Janis, coming in to your store is like coming in to Mayberry,’ ” she said, referring to Andy Griffith’s bucolic TV town. “She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as a compliment, but I wanted to show everybody that we are still part of the world. I wanted to keep the store part of the book decision-making process.”
Janis Irvine is 77 years old, and I figured, if she can try something new, so can I.
Sure, reading the Sony is bothersome: The screen is too small, you are constantly flipping to the next page, glare is an issue, the dove gray background makes text hard to read.
That is not the bad news. The bad news is, you get used to it. I’m sure other devices, such as the Kindle, are better, and the Sony Reader wasn’t so bad that, even on the first read, I can’t see everybody someday embracing it. I can. Eventually, printed books will be a luxury, like going to the symphony.
The key in my mind is cost — the additional expense of squirting electronic text into your e-book is almost nothing, as opposed to the printing and binding and shipping and such of a physical book, and when you compare $25 for a hardback to the pittance they’ll eventually charge for an e-book, people will take the cheaper experience, despite its drawbacks, in the same way that, nice as it was to have someone run out and pump your gas and wash your windows and offer chewing gum to the kids, the bottom line is, to save a nickel a gallon we’d pump the stuff ourselves.
But not yet. As Irvine and I spoke, a 4-year-old girl interrupted us.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Can you turn on the train?”
The Book Bin’s owner hurried to activate the locomotive, with its toy dog and bunny rabbit passengers, that circles the children’s book section. One of the intangibles that e-book engineers have yet to duplicate.
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