Thursday, March 15, 2012

the tangible thing

Reading Wells's Tono-Bungay on the iPad, after reading stacks of his science fiction things on my (pre-Touch) Kindle over this past summer. The iPad reading experience is, at least to these aging eyes, rather more pleasant than the Kindle experience. I appreciate the Kindle's lightness, its slip-in-pocket-of-your-cargo-shorts go-anywhereness; I like its seemingly infinite battery life; but I'm not sold on the "digital ink" display, nor do I like any of the typefaces available. That's okay: it delivers the text, and it's been more than good enough for engrossed readings of Verne, Wells, Gaskell, and a bit of George Eliot.

Tono-Bungay? From the first fifth of the thing, I can say that it's quite well written indeed. Rather moving, in fact. Hard to see in what direction the story's going to head – I'd picked it up after reading a description of it (in John Gross's Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) as a kind of ripping satire of Victorian commercialism, but thus far it's shaping up as a rather intimate Bildungsroman. Wells is better than Gaskell here (at least the Gaskell I've read), but he's no George Eliot.

I had the occasion to revisit the other Eliot (T. Stearns) the other week, in the form of the bulky HBJ hardcover of his Complete Poems and Play 1909-1950 – the one where the cover is dominated by the aged eagle staring purse-lipped from behind his round spectacles. The binding of that particular book is in a parlous state, I'm afraid; a couple of signatures are on the verge of falling out. And that's not to mention the rather shocking degree of underlining & marginalia pretty much throughout. (Okay, not quite throughout – I haven't really marked Practical Cats much at all, nor the weaker of the plays.)

I bought the book in my second year of graduate school, ostensibly for Joel Porte's course on American Modernism, but really because I wanted an Eliot. My own copies of his poems – if you're of a certain age you know the editions, those thin little HBJ mass-market paperbacks, The Waste Land and Other Poems in grey, Four Quartets in yellow – had gotten soaked one undergraduate year when the pipes in the apartment above me had frozen. I kept the books, swollen and curled as they were, for a few years, unwilling to part with the familiar typeface, the now-blurred ballpoint notes, but eventually the mold drove me to throw them away & replace them with the Complete Poems and Plays, itself now foxed and beginning to disintegrate, the corners of the leaves of the first hundred pages or so almost entirely worn into finger-friendly curves.

No, I have nothing really new to add to the proliferating conversation on the merits and demerits of digital, screen reading. I'm by no means an early adopter, but I'm happy with the Kindle and the iPad, happy to be able to carry around bookcases'-worths of Victorian and Edwardian novels, never having to worry about eventually shelving them. But I wonder if I'll ever make of any of those books my own in the same tangible way that I did those Eliot volumes, or that copy of To the Lighthouse I read to tatters, or the creased and multiply-read Princess of Mars back in my mother's house? Tono-Bungay remains oddly intangible to me, and even when I digitally "underline" passages, or fill the digital "margin" with typed notes, I can't feel myself interacting with the page in that same way.

1 comment:

Archambeau said...

It's the lame-o note-taking and passage-marking that keeps me from fully embracing reading on my Kindle and iPad. I mean, it's just too damned slow for those moments when, jacked on coffee, one really has something to make note of at length. If they came up with a really, really good stylus, one with which one could make tiny, clear notes between lines, or make the kind of coded symbols I like to make for various things I'm tracking, I'd be happy. But I think satisfying people who read this way is probably a pretty low priority for Apple, Amazon, and the rest.