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Andrew Watch

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I was in the sun with a book and a beer. My mother called to me several times to get into the house and out of the sun.

I ignored her because I loved the heat and humidity and the feeling of my body covered in sweat. You don’t often get to perspire as if you’re putting in a hard day of physical labour simply by reading a book.

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The novel was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the hardcover edition. I had removed the dust jacket and so my perspiration-damp fingers were blackening with the cover’s dark dye. They were leaving smudged fingerprints on the pages as I turned them.

That was years ago. I remember the feel of the paper and the texture of the cross-hatched cloth binding. The memory is vivid: the taste of the beer, the damp cover, the perspiration as it moved in a slow crawl down my skin.

It’s a memory of an artifact. It’s not a memory of the art.

I don’t read hardcover books anymore, not if I can help it. I rarely read softcover books either. Mostly, I read e-books.

It’s a tiresome debate, the one pitting print against digital. Yet I still hear people say to me as I hold my e-book reader, “How can you do that? I can’t stand them. Give me a real book any day,” or something along those lines. (There’s always a reference to how books smell.)

I hear about the physical nature of traditional books: the feel of the paper and the cover. The scent of old pages. The stitching and the glue. I hear about the physical aspects of books as if I’m dullard who is new to reading and utterly ignorant of them – as if I haven’t been reading books for over 50 years, including those years when digital books didn’t exist. As if I haven’t collected hundreds of books in boxes and carted them across the country.

And as if there were no physical aspects to digital books. There are. They’re significant, just as the physical aspects of softcover and hardback editions aren’t quite as wonderful as nostalgia would have us believe. There’s more to them than how they feel and smell.

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Ignoring for a moment how accessible the prose or poetry of a given book might be, you would think the traditional book is about as accessible as anything could possibly be. It’s simple: Paper bound together and contained in a cover that is either hard or soft. What could be easier to read?

The other day, I ordered my first non-digital book in a very long time. I wanted the book and it was only available in a softcover edition: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Colombian author Alvaro Mutis. I would have preferred an e-book edition.

As paper editions were to me before, e-books are to me now. They are what I am used to and comfortable with. That word, comfort, is a key one.

When that softcover book I ordered arrived, I discovered it was 700 pages of small print, an inch and a half thick, and weighed considerably more than my e-book reader. I read the book. I enjoyed it. But I couldn’t begin to describe all the various yoga moves I invented trying to hold it and read it comfortably. I also squinted the entire time.

I’ve not renounced softcover and hardbound editions in favour of the fabulous world of digital. I’m not one of those people crying, with a zealot’s conviction, “Print is dead!” It’s simply that I like to read and, to read comfortably, which is the only proper way to read, I need e-books. I’ve found I like them, too.

My hands don’t hold physical books as well as they used to. My fingers and wrists start to hurt after a fairly short time. It’s just plain hard to read softcover editions and even harder to read hardcover books. It’s probably something arthritic or rheumatoid in my hands. I don’t know.

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But I was about 30 when I read that book in my mother’s backyard and that was 30 years ago. I’m older.

It could be said that I didn’t choose e-books. My hands did. They made the choice a few years ago. E-books are easier to hold and read. They make reading comfortable so I can ignore everything external and lose myself in the story.

Yes, the story.

(My eyes chose e-books too. They’re no longer young. With a book in digital form, I can simply enlarge the text with a touch.)

As much as I may admire the art of making physical books, my interest is in the writing: what it has to say and how well it says it. I care about the words.

Paper and digital, pages and screens: All of these are things; things we use to read. What is a book if not a portal to stories and ideas? Paper doesn’t make a story good or bad, no more than digital makes it good or bad. It’s simply the form it appears in.

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The only thing that is important is the story.

People tend to think of digital versus physical in an either/or way. Binary thinking. Always nonsense. One is not lesser than the other; one does not preclude the other. Where books are concerned, they are just different vehicles for reading stories and discovering ideas.

I’ll continue to like them both and to read them both, leaning to e-books simply because it allows me to read with ease – with comfort, focused only on the story.

Now the sun is out, the beer is cold, and there are stories waiting for me. I hope I don’t get sunstroke. And I hope I don’t have to hear yet another person tell me about how wonderful “real” books smell.

William Wren lives in Fredericton.

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