Spring, which has almost become non-existential in Calcutta, is a much revered and coveted time of the year for any of us living in the tropical zone, especially when it precedes a season of pig-like sweating. The breezy streets are a delight to the souls dampened by the winter, and a walk through those streets with an old friend hits just the right note on the Spring Symphony.
An old friend and I have shared a long, uneven but all the more enjoyable friendship over the years, and our unending love for books has still, with old, straining strings, held our friendship. Here, I must mention, with much gratitude, that she was the person to introduce me to the vast, unending, and marvellous land of books, lending me the first book I ever read by Sidney Sheldon. When I raised my reservations about the unappealing demeanour of a book, she just asked me to read for only thirty minutes every day before sleep, and stated that if after a week I still found it ‘uninteresting’, I could drop it and return it to her, with her promising to never again insist that I read a book.
Surprise! Surprise! I finished the book within a week, returned it to her, told her I finished it and was prized with a look of priceless shock from her. I am not such an active reader anymore, but what occurred to me then was how immensely romantic holding the spine of a book is; and of the many sins that our education system and technology has caused, one is causing a holocaust on the romance of holding a book. Needless to say, books, since then, became an inseparable part of my regime and my birthday gifts. But I must confess, after my first read, I was still sceptical whether this enchantment I felt was ephemeral or actually enduring. It persisted. Even though initially, I raised doubts about the ‘unappealing’ demeanour of a book, it was that which drove me most to the habit of reading books: the mellow chirps of the pages, the letters marching on the beige field, the weaving and unravelling of tales, and the hundreds of lives coming to life on those very seemingly lifeless pages.
Now, coming back to the spring evening of breezy streets: it was an occasion of me returning my friend her long-given books, and as we were merrily discussing things of grave concern to us, something graver ambushed us – what is the future of hardcopies? I have always been troubled by the growing popularity of ebooks, but it did not hit harder than when I heard her saying that she has to do her college’s research work from an ebook. The general argument here would be that an ebook offers almost everything that a book does, but god forbid the day when writers romanticise reading an ebook by the window on a rainy day in their novels or their Instagram posts per se. Leaving aside the romantic values, how would an ebook ever satiate the bourgeois need of the book-hoarding class? Who do you think would be impressed by your listless list of books on your device, instead of the piles of webbed and tattered books with missing pages and crumpled edges? How can looking up from your well-lit Kindle be the same as a distracted stare into the distance as Tolstoy drones on in a thick copy of War and Peace? What would be more charming, lending book by just a few taps, or rummaging through the hundreds of dust sprinkled books, whilst being cast under the perverse magic of nostalgia?
In a not so recent finding in 2017, it was published that the United States of America recorded a greater sale of ebooks compared to hardcopies. I became fairly unstable after reading this and looked with greater awe than ever at my meagre collection of whatever hardcopies I possess. I, too, am guilty of possessing ebooks. Of course, I am not all against ebooks (this article is being published online, after all), it does provide many the opportunity to read things that otherwise would be inaccessible to them and it certainly is a great aid when travelling. Although the emergence of ebooks feels like a personal defeat to me, I concede to the importance of ebooks in times of such great distress to nature and society. And in fear that I might be misconstrued as a privileged brat, let me tell you, I buy books using fees earned from part-time teaching, which most assuredly isn’t much. Yet, still, for me, books and their essence lies in their old-school charm that keeps us turning actual pages.
Andrei Tarkovsky once said that artists are there because the world is not perfect, and such imperfection is reminded to us by those hardcopies that seem frayed and old and decaying just like our world. The ebook is too perfect a vessel for works that are born out of imperfection. It swerves us into a path away from nature, away from reality into a dark realm of complete machine dominance. In the end, maybe I am simply a hopeless romantic stuck in the past when the world is aggressively progressing into the future, but I hope my voice of unreason reaches a few romantic hearts so that we can keep the lineage of hardcopies from dying a most ignominious and unromantic death.
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