In Praise of Paper

A light-hearted post today—in these days of gloom and uncertainty, I’m increasingly drawn to writing blog posts tending towards frothiness. Cappuccino rather than espresso.

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about bashing e-readers. Indeed, I have an e-reader. It’s a Kindle Paperwhite and I love it to bits. It holds umpteen books, it’s lightweight and easy to hold when I’m horizontal, and, best of all, it is backlit so I can read in the early hours without disturbing the other half.

So what is this post about? Well, a little while ago I was buying something on Amazon for £16. Postage and packing would cost £4-odd, but I could get free p & p if I bought something else to bring the total past £20. It was a bit of a no-brainer to look for something around the £4 mark and, in effect, get the second item free.

If you, too, are an avid reader, you’ll know to which department I headed in search of a £4 item. I found something straight away—a small Penguin paperback of essays by George Orwell.

Here’s a pic of the book next to my Kindle. And, yes, that’s one of my books on the e-reader screen. Why miss an opportunity for a little self-plugging, eh? Goodness knows, I’m rubbish at doing that most of the time.

The caption sums up my feelings towards e-books and their more traditional counterparts. Some people say they will never use an e-reader; others that they will only use an e-reader and never return to paper books. Me, I enjoy both. Much as I love my Kindle, it will never completely replace traditional books for me.

I tend to alternate between reading a book on my Kindle and reading a paperback, but of late I’ve been reading more of the former. No particular reason other than the books I’ve been wanting to read next happen to be on my Kindle.

So when the Orwell book arrived from Amazon, it had been a few weeks since I’d last handled a paperback. And a great deal longer since I’d held a brand new one.

I imagine most book lovers will recognise how I react to holding a new book for the first time:

– gaze at it for long moments, slowly absorbing the cover design

– run my fingers over the cover; if, as is the case with the Orwell book, the cover is embossed, my fingers will linger as I relish the ridges and furrows, silky to the touch

– turn the book over and absorb the back cover and description

– (this, and the next, are the ones that people who have little time for books don’t get) raise the book to my nose and inhale deeply

–  riffle the pages, stop at random and thrust my nose between the pages to inhale once more

There is nothing quite like the pleasure to be derived from holding a brand new book. (Indeed, from holding old, well-read books, too, though the sensations involved there are more to do with an appreciation of age and mustiness, and being in the presence of something much-treasured.)

While the aesthetic pleasure in e-books lies almost entirely in the reading device itself—which, of course, looks the same no matter what you’re reading on it—paper books differ in their dimensions, type and size of font, cover design, and more. An e-reader strips back a book to make it all about its contents; I’m unlikely to ever derive pleasure purely from the look of an e-book. By contrast, I can greatly enjoy simply looking at and holding a paper book, never mind reading its contents.

Take the Orwell book. It’s small in height and width and thickness, like a well-padded pamphlet, and weighs very little, a pleasant surprise when you’re accustomed to holding weightier tomes. I’ve already mentioned the silky feel of the embossed cover—it really is something I delight in touching. I love the classic Penguin design of the cover: simplistic and iconic. And it has that new-book scent that always reminds me of the smell given off by roads and pavements when it rains for the first time in a while. The smells aren’t the same, as such, but similar for their distinctiveness.

I’d like to say that the scent of a book is of crisp paper and ink, but they’re more likely to have been laser-printed these days. Still, there’s something special about thrusting your hooter between the pages of a new book and inhaling. I’m not going over the top and claiming this to be akin to a religious experience, but it nevertheless stirs something spiritual in me.

“Guru Sam, tell us the secret of life.”
“Certainly, my acolytes. Go forth and buy a new book. Open it and breathe in through your nose. Slowly. Deeply. Therein lies true enlightenment.”

Yeah, I agree; that’s enough wittering for one post. Whatever your preferred medium, happy smell— er, reading!

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 6

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Punctuation for Effect

Most writers know there are rules of punctuation to which they should generally adhere. It is possible to depart from these rules—for example, by not enclosing dialogue in quotation marks à la Cormac McCarthy—but do so at your peril because you can bet your bottom dollar that it will irritate the heck out of some readers. And some of them won’t hesitate to post a scathing review. (If you don’t believe me, check out the low-star reviews on some of McCarthy’s works.)

Most writers also know that sometimes the rules can be broken deliberately and to good, if subtle, effect. There might be other instances, but I’m thinking particularly of punctuation in dialogue. Consider these examples:

“No, we don’t.”

“No. We don’t.”

“No we don’t.”

It’s all about nuance—each example conveys a slightly different tone on the part of the speaker. The first is punctuated as you’d expect, suggesting the speaker is calm and talking in a normal tone. The second has the full stop (period) after ‘No’, implying that the speaker is being deliberate and more emphatic—maybe they are involved in a minor argument with someone. The third has no punctuation between the words. That’s not breaking the rules to be contrary, but for a particular purpose: it requires the reader not to pause between the words, implying that the speaker is a little flustered—a hurried rebuttal, perhaps.

Here are some more examples:

“No. We. Don’t.”

“No we don’t!”

“No, we don’t…”

“No, we don’t—”

It depends largely on the surrounding text, but each example might suggest something slightly different on the part of the speaker: over-emphasis, excitement, uncertainty, interruption.

Not all of these examples break the rules of punctuation and sentence structure, but even those that do are effective at conveying the desired impression about the speaker. In dialogue, especially, it is possible to imply a host of different moods simply by altering the punctuation.

It’s probably a good idea to depart from the norms only sparingly, since even the most forgiving readers will grow irritated at what they consider cavalier disregard for rules that have been long established for good reason.

‘Try and’ v ‘Try to’

Many of us will have used the expression ‘try and’ in everyday speech.

“When will it be ready?”

“I’ll try and get it done by tomorrow.”

The reply could have been, “I’ll try to get it done by tomorrow.” Either way, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Yet, ‘try and’ is a weird expression when you think about it. Change the reply in the above example just a smidgeon and only the ‘try to’ construction works:

“I’m trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

If we said, “I’m trying and get it done by tomorrow,” the listener would think we’ve gone barmy.

In my writing, I have always changed ‘try and’ to ‘try to’ whenever I notice I’ve used it (except I’ll allow it to stay occasionally in dialogue). This comes from a nagging sense that ‘try and’ is somehow ungrammatical. But is it?

The short answer is no. If you want to use ‘try and’ in your writing—not just in dialogue but in narrative, too—have at it.

For a longer answer, take a look at what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: try-and-v-try-to

 

I’ll leave you with another thought about collective nouns. If there’s a prickle of porcupines and a paddling of ducks, why isn’t there a poppycock of politicians? Till next time…