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Karin Schimke

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

E-book can be a bit e-rritating but a good story triumphs

I like my books dirty.

The reverence that some hold of the product – the paper thing between covers – is not something I appear to be capable of.

I came to this realisation because I read my first ebook this month on a tablet given to me as a gift.

After fiddling around with the new contraption I realised that I wasn’t going to use it much unless I did something with it I really wanted to. So I ventured into the mysterious world of on-line book buying and came away with Jeffrey Eugenides new book The Marriage Plot.

I’ve written before that I don’t see myself as someone who would easily convert to ebooks. So I tested the hypothesis and my main finding was that I’m not very nice to my paper books. It won’t do to balance a cup of coffee on the e-reader on the way to the stoep. I can’t let it drop to the floor next to the bed as I do when I start nodding off, or read it in the bath or on the beach or in the park or while I am frying onions.

I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.

I don’t feel that way about paper books. I know this is anathema to many people. It’s also why I am loathe to borrow books because I know I work them hard, that my consumption of them requires them to negotiate the rough terrain of careless hands, pencil scribbles, dog ears, and my obsessive reading habits which require me to take the thing everywhere – meaning it gets stuffed into grubby handbags and gets read over solitary lunches and during chocolate binges.

When I am being careful with a book, I read less, slower and with greater difficulty.

Another draw-back of this e-book awe is that I feel limited by carrying around something that is so desirable to so many people. I didn’t take it to the park with the kids. I didn’t leave it on the passenger seat when I went hopped out at the shops. In short, I became more furtive about reading because I was worried someone was going to bop me over the head and carry away my gift.

I am not dismissing ebooks though, and have come to the conclusion that this is not an either/or debate. The point of all books is to convey the story. The vehicle is almost secondary. And once Eugenides hooked me, I read with appetite and delight, sometimes even forgetting I was holding a mini computer instead of a paperback. And he – Eugenides – was the second author of the month (after I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna) that made February a dazzler the other months this year are going to have a hard time outshining.

Eugenides ended rather abruptly, what with me being unable to assess how the close the end of the book was from the little bar at the bottom of the reading pane. From there I splashed into Milan Kundera’s Immortality with too much lightness, the philosophical themes being unaligned with the ones I am currently engaged in – and splashed right out again into something fizzier, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a radical and surprisingly enjoyable departure from my usual reading preference. Now I am swimming in a placid lake of a book: The Fox In The Attic by Richard Hughes, epic and atmospheric.

Over lunch just now some crumbs fell on to the page and the cheese left a tiny smear of grease. The book and I are now bonded by the mess of the prosaic. – Schimke is a poet and writer, and editor of the Cape Times books pages.


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