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!

Enid Bloody Blyton

Five years ago, I was asked by an online magazine, Mass Movement, to pen a short article on the topic ‘What changed your life?’ My piece was featured alongside one by Larry Niven, the author of Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer, which I thought was well cool. Anyway, the other day I was having a Facebook conversation with some friends who are reading Enid Blyton’s books to their children. I mentioned that I’d written this article, but when I went to find it to give them a link, it seemed to have disappeared into the ether. Not being one to waste an article, I thought I’d reproduce it here, with a nod to Rob and Ange, and to all parents who start their children off along the joyous path of reading with a spot of Enid.

Enid Bloody Blyton

I have just turned fifty. Bald, with a paunch, and a fondness for beer and rugby. My reading tastes and writing tend towards the dark side. Give me a scary or fantastical film, a bottle of red wine and a bag of chocolates on a Friday night, I’m as happy as a pig in shit.

Darkness, science fiction, horror… why, then, am I penning a short article about that author of insufferably quaint children’s books from another era, Enid Blyton? Enid bloody Blyton? Well, those good folk from Mass Movement asked me for a piece about something that changed my life, and books play a huge part in my life. They mould it, inform it, direct it. The love of books led me, inevitably and irrevocably, to creating my own.

I’ve been writing fiction for around twenty years. Working full-time in a dreary, soul-sucking job allows me to return home of an evening with my brain still functioning and so able to write. Many spare hours are given over to tapping away at the computer keyboard, to the exclusion of most else (I have a very understanding family). Difficult to answer a question about something that changed my life without talking about books. Which brings me back to Enid Blyton.

She’s the one who started it. As soon as I learned to read, I read. Her books, those aimed at very young children of which I was one, were the first. They made a lasting impression that shaped the way I have viewed the world ever since.

The books were Adventures of the Wishing Chair, The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. My well-thumbed copies are around the house somewhere; I passed them on to my daughters. The children in these books have names like Dick and Fanny. Other character names I can still recall all these years later: Chinky, Silky, Moonface, the Saucepan Man. Hell, if I read the books now, I’d see innuendos everywhere and wonder quite what she was stirring into her tea while she wrote them.

But back then I possessed nothing but childhood innocence and a mind like a dry sponge ready to soak up whatever spilled its way. And spill Enid did.

I gasped with astonishment when the chair’s legs first sprouted feathery wings that enabled Dick or Fanny or whoever to embark on magical adventures. Or when the top of the Faraway Tree rotated to reveal a new and wondrous land that Dick, etc were able to enter for, yep, you guessed it, magical adventures.

To my fifty-year-old self, this all seems unutterably twee. But my five-year-old eyes were opened to the infinite worlds of possibilities that can be contained within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me.

One of my friends calls me a dreamer. He’s probably right. And it’s all your fault, Enid bloody Blyton. You set me on a path that I still follow. You changed my life. For that I thank you.