BROUGHT TO e-BOOKS

THE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN CHANGED THE WORLD. FOR ME, THAT INCLUDED WADING INTO THE WORLD OF E-BOOKS FOR THE FIRST TIME. IT'S A wonderful, MURKY POOL, I'M STILL ONLY ANKLE-DEEP ... and yet.

EIGHT DAYS, that’s how close we were. Eight days from going to live in Buenos Aires for three months, followed by backpacking around South America, a work trip to Newfoundland and then on to London for an extended sojourn.

Then Covid-19 struck, and it all collapsed.

 Before that, I’d put a lot of thought into what I’d do about reading matter. Carting a bag of books around was out of the question, of course, but I’m one of those people who can’t pass a bookshop without going in and buying something, so what to do?

 As someone who loves fiction of pretty much any pedigree (except rom-coms, which mostly are the idiot spawn of Satan) I’d always eschewed e-books in favour of the ‘real’ thing but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to put prejudice aside and embrace the digital world/word.

 So, I downloaded Kindle on to my laptop-cum-tablet and began browsing. The first two titles I bought were no-brainers: Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Joe Hill’s short horror story collection Full Throttle. Told you I read pretty much anything.

 The Mirror and the Light was the perfect candidate for weight-loss, renowned as it is for causing the death of a British chihuahua onto whom it was accidentally dropped (just kidding).

 At the same time I decided to download Dickens’ Bleak House, in the bleak hope that three months in a non-English-speaking city would allow me to get past page 14, something I have serially failed to achieve for 40 years (joining Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor in that particular club).

 And it turned out that this digital book lark was so simple even an e-book luddite like me could do it. Wham! Crime and Punishment. Pow! Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook. Bang! American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.

 Then came Covid, and everything fell apart. Bookshops closed. Libraries closed. I was down to my last few paperbacks – Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Volume Two, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country, Stephen King’s If It Bleeds – when I remembered the Kindle.

 The entire literary world – whether out-of-date, unwanted, unloved or obscure - was readily available and waiting to be squirted onto my tablet through the magic of the interweb, 

was it not? I still got my essential paperback fix by ordering from Gleebooks and the like but why not take advantage of my new-found Kindle library?

 And, oh, what a rabbit hole that turned out to be. I had always loved

the-mirror-and-the-light.jpg

Thirty six per cent read, just 64% to go.

American magical realist writer Jonathan Carroll’s first book The Land of Laughs, but he’s not often found on Australian bookshelves.

 Not so online. I downloaded Bathing the Lion (2014) and Played Your Eyes, his short story from 2018. It was somewhere deep in this labyrinthine warren that I read about The Hawkline Monster, a book from 1974 by one Richard Brautigan. It was described as a Gothic Western and, I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of stuff I can’t go past. I also learned that it’s been mooted as a possible movie many times, with names such as Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood attached.

 Brautigan also wrote Trout Fishing in America (1967), a book described on Wikipedia as “an abstract book without a clear central storyline”. Yup, that’ll do me. Click. Which, in turn, somehow led to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sucker’s Portfolio, a collection of his previously unpublished writing. And so it goes.

 That list now includes Paul Theroux, John Banville, Anne Enright, M. John Harrison, Susanna Clarke, Laura Jean McKay, and Georges Simenon. There are 33 books, short stories and novellas in my Kindle collection – and I haven’t read a single one. What I can tell you, thanks to the wonders of the e-book, is that I have read 6% of Actress, 39% of Full Throttle and 36% of The Mirror and the Light.

 On the other hand, the bookshops are open again. I have Flanagan’s latest in hardback and a recent trip to Big W and Target for socks saw me come out with The Mother Fault, Honeybee, The Abstainer, and The Dictionary of Lost Words. The new Banville, Snow, arrived yesterday and a friend lent me the excellent All Involved by Ryan Gatts.

 A nostalgic trip to the library, to pay my respects, be nosey and NOT borrow any books ended with an armful that included Palahniuk’s Adjustment Day, Kings of America by R. J. Ellory (he of the poetic, literary thriller A Quiet Belief in Angels) and

Night Gaunts by Joyce Carol Oates. A jaunt to a couple of op shops for fancy dress attire? Atlas Shrugged and The Owl Service ($3 each, how could you not). Found abandoned in a shopping centre: Trace by Patricia Cornwell. Seriously, Trump could build a wall with what’s on my bedside table.

 And still the 33* titles in the Kindle app remain unread. And I wonder what that says about me. I’m not a luddite, not really. I’ve been using computers since they first appeared.   So, what’s stopping me from diving headlong – or at least dipping a toe – into the digital domain?

 Much has been written about the effects of Covid-19 on book sales, whether paper or digital, but I’ve got both within my sweaty reach and have so far failed to do the latter justice.

 In addition, the original enthusiasm has seemingly waned. I began buying those 33 titles on February 2 and bought the last one (The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke) at the start of September.

 Perhaps that last purchase might hold a clue. I’m a big fan of Clarke’s wonderful debut book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and bought her latest, Piranesi, in hardback as soon as it came out. Is it simply that I’m shallow enough to want that book displayed on my shelves but am ambivalent about her little-known collection of short stories?

 Would I have embraced e-books if the aborted sojourn in Buenos Aires had gone ahead? Do I have to make a concerted effort now? After all, as an egregiously under-employed travel writer in a no-travel pandemic it’s not as if I’m short of time. I try, but every time I decide to read on the tablet I have to clamber over the pile next to the bed to get to it and, well, you can see the dilemma.

 Is it just a deep suspicion of e-books? Am I prejudiced? After all, I’m a child of the late 1950s who grew up with nothing BUT paper books. For me, reading involves the turning of the page, the bookmark, the smell of new pages and the yellowing of old ones. Reading isn’t just cerebral, it’s tactile too.

 Or is it simply that I find my tablet too ungainly? It’s rubbish at the beach or in the bath, that’s for sure. Would I be more tempted to read digitally if I had smaller hardware?

It’s hard to say, but the guilt is eating at me. I’ve got to start on those poor, neglected, orphaned e-books. Just after I finish the pile by the bed or there’s a Covid-19 vaccine. Whichever comes first.

* I'm up to 39 now ... and so it goes.