I recently received copies of the UK edition of Theft of Swords, and upon seeing it a friend remarked, “So this is it. This is what it all comes down to. Wow, you must really be proud.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen my book in print of course, but he’s right, seeing your book for the first time is incredible. When I got the very first edition of The Crown Conspiracy in the mail with a cover that none of you have ever seen, depicting a crown and dagger in a puddle of blood, I was ecstatic. I played with it like a toy. I sat down and read the whole thing. It is an amazing sensation to read your own book. I think it has to do with the familiarity with the physical act of reading a book. Sitting on the couch, turning the pages, seeing the printed words just as I had done with my favorites over the years, getting lost in the story, but knowing I wrote it, was surreal in an extremely pleasurable way.
This sense of associating good and bad experiences with things and places that makes the experience of reading your own book for the first time so wonderful, I think lies at the heart of the whole ebook verses print book debate. I’m sure many theatergoers had similar issues when movies were shown on televisions, or when movies learned to talk. When I was a kid, I remember everyone discussed how television, and its three stations, were ruining the American family. Now no one talks about that anymore. It is the computer, and gaming consoles that are the new enemy. And I find myself remembering the evenings when my family gathered around the tv to watch a movie, The Wonderful World of Color (back when color just debuted and Disney was capitalizing on it,) or a Jacque Cousteau special. And how the next day at school, everyone else had seen the same things. The very destroyer of the American family had actually, in retrospect, been the nexus, the replacement for the radio in the living room, or the piano in the parlor. I find that computers cause everyone to live more insulated lives, communicating in text messages instead of walking in the next room and speaking. But in thirty years, people will likely be remembering the good old days when there were only three gaming consoles and everyone played the same games together over the same network, and how that was a cultural bonding experience they regret having lost.
For people my age, printed books were huge. I started reading relatively late finishing my first novel at thirteen. I can still remember when books on shelves were mysterious things. Doorways into the unknown that I was intimidated by because I wasn’t a very good reader. Then when I finally discovered the joys of reading, it was by sitting in a chair, or curled up on a bed, or tucked in the backseat of a car with a small paperback book in my hands. Later, when I had the money I bought hardcovers—the luxury vehicle—and I felt ever so more worldly and sophisticated to turn those pages, even if I couldn’t tuck them in a back pocket.
I’ve heard people speak lovingly of the smell and feel of a book. This puzzles some as the smell of a book isn’t necessarily a nice smell. It is usually ink, if it is a new book, or mildew, if it’s an old one. But I don’t think that’s the point. It isn’t the smell of the book so much as the smell of memory. I used to play tennis, and I had many wonderful times doing so, and to this day the smell of a recently cracked tube of tennis balls is like pine on Christmas morning. I suspect this very pungent scent is actually just glue and rubber, something that without context anyone would abhor as an industrial stench, but because it carried with it wonderful memories, I like it. In many books and movies similar comments are always made about the smell of a baseball glove, or the green of the grass.
I imagine an actor doesn’t feel they have achieved success until they sit in a theater and watch themselves on the big screen for the first time, or perform on a genuine theater stage—one where they once sat in the audience. Mothers may not truly feel like mothers until they hear themselves accidentally say something their own mother did that they never thought they would repeat. A man might not truly feel like a man until they look in a mirror and notice how much their gray hair makes them look like their father. Handling and reading a printed book is like that for someone like me who grew up with them.
That won’t always be the case. Searching though files and seeing the cover of your book and downloading it to an eReader will be the same thing for the next generation. And when books are read on retina lenses, or uploaded directly into the brain via neural network jacks, they will laud the ease of use, the lack of needing to carry that old clunky eReader around with them, but they will lament the loss of tactile memories. How can it be a book if they can’t press the button to turn the pages? They will continue to carry their eReaders with them even after they can no longer download books because that little electronic slate is their friend. Beat and battered it is their most loyal pal who kept them company when they were bored, or who devilishly kept them up when they really should have been sleeping. It’s their buddy who taught them new things, showed them new worlds, and helped define what kind of person they would ultimately become. How could they throw that away?
Holding the new, fat volume of Theft of Swords and reading it, is still a rush, and I am glad I was published in time to see it—in the event print books become an exception rather than a rule. It takes me back to those days when I was thirteen and held an equally thick (or so it seemed to my smaller hands,) copy of Fellowship of the Ring, and reminds me of when I used a typewriter, poster board and stapler to create this very thing I now hold. And seeing my map, my table of contents, my chapter heads and feeling the magic that any book can cast, is like being that kid who played astronaut only to later walk on the moon.
So yeah…it doesn’t suck.