I was a dinosaur.
Not, alas, a snarling male-fantasy T-Rex, or even a velociraptor.
I was a brontosaurus. Or perhaps a mastodon. Slow, ponderous, quite content to wallow in turbid swamps as long as there was enough forage available. Not succulent greens, but paper. More enticing, more delicious than the freshest ambrosia. To wit, books.
Growing up, the keenest pleasure I experienced came on every alternate Saturday. My grandfather would take us to the British Council Library on Theatre Road, where there was a whole section devoted to children’s books. (It no longer exists; Attila the Hen cut down the funding for British missions worldwide, and the children’s section was one of the first casualties.) My cousin and I would fight tooth and nail over the library cards, gleefully raid the shelves and then, on the ride home, finger the books lustfully, barely able to contain the excitement, the anticipation, the sheer joy of having so many books to read.
Paper and glue and printing ink, the texture of the old leather on the spine, the crispness of the pages against the fingers, the unique smell – whether the brash presence of a new book like the perfume of a parvenu, or the more muted, musty, faintly apologetic miasma of old books – all adding up to the sheerest magic. The FEEL of books as much as their content. The purest pleasure I have known.
And yet ... This morning I realised that it has been WEEKS since I read a book from cover to cover. The long shelf facing the bathroom gathers dust. My last three visits to bookstores were for book launches – where I did not pause to browse the shelves. I have been seduced by e-books.
In the first week of January this year, the Wall Street Journal published a bout of the sheerest havering, citing irrelevant statistics and using contradictory arguments to argue that e-books are no threat to paper-and-ink publishing. A year ago, this dinosaur would have thrown his weight behind this argument, but not now. Not since I was bought over.
First, I moved from a laptop to a tablet. Then I discovered the seductive convenience of reading a book that I can adjust to my own requirements. After years of badly-bound paperbacks with barely legible fonts, I can now change the size of the font and often the font itself to my convenience. I no longer have to prise apart the book to read the ends of sentences that run into the spine. I don’t even need a bookmark, since the e-book will automatically open to the point where I left off reading the last time.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
There’s more. A generous friend has shared with me his entire library of e-books. All. Forty. Thousand. Of. Them! All of them put together take up a little part of a hard drive which is itself no bigger than ONE old Bantam paperback. 40,000 books! To put this in perspective, my father and I have been at our combined wits’ end to accommodate our collection of some 7000 books (not including his treasured edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which always has its own place next to his armchair!) No bookshelves, no cartons, no trunks too heavy to be lifted. Just a hard drive and a tablet.
And the clinching argument – when I’m reading an e-book through the night, the page is back-lit. Ergo, no need to keep the light on, and no squeals of complaint from the Better Half!
Now I know why the dinosaurs vanished.