Winning Meanland essay 2: The internet has not impacted upon my reading habits in the slightest

For the ten minutes before my children sleep the internet has not impacted upon my reading habits in the slightest. Tonight’s book is a treasure. Behind its thick crème cover, its pages, also crème, are stiff and square with sixties-vintage pictures. Chapter One, Down the Rabbit-Hole, begins on page eleven.

Alice‘Why not page one?’ a son asks.
‘If you flick through and count,’ I say, ‘it’s page eleven.’

But he’s forgotten what I’ve said, absorbed in the blurred edges of Alice’s golden hair once painted with watercolours or pastels.

We tried ebooks over the summer (kindle on iPhone). The pictures were ordinary, the numberlessness was disorientating and the text too small on that piddly screen. It was decided. For the nightly family read, we will stick with tradition.

The wonders of television, that strange medium that revolutionalised the twentieth Century. The joys of colour, thinner televisions and going digital. What did it do to theatre? Whilst movies and plays can be an expensive treat, neither is extinct nor threatens to be. Not in Melbourne anyway.

I’d like to think that an artful city rewards plays like Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade. FortyFive Downstairs is to run a second season, through winter too. That iphones and internet are gimmicks taking over our lives is possibly true. The consumer ultimately chooses. For myself, I’ve been downloading e-books of late. They’re just so convenient.

Strike me down for not supporting my local bookshop. I’m reading more online extracts than book covers. I’m sampling first chapters via kindle (on PC and iPhone might I add, not iPad). If I’m sure I’ll read chapter two, I download the whole to my laptop in a heartbeat, at a measly $7 a pop.

At my kitchen sink I savour twenty-to-forty minute New Yorker Podcasts. From my mobile’s iPod modern laureates read short stories from the magazine’s vault. Last week I listened to Tobias Wolff, Cynthia Ozick, Junot Diaz and Paul Theroux. Via the Guardian Books Podcast, Jeanette Winterson and Peter Carey speak of deviate lives and thorough research.

In the car on the way home from coffee with friends, I indulge in ABC Radio’s BookShow Podcast. Last month, after reading ‘While Not Writing A Book: Diaries’ in The Monthly (print version), I searched out Helen Garner. It was the way clusters of elegant font had spilt down the white almost-square page like rivulets. I kept visualising the text’s shape on the page as I read it. This kept feeding me, pushing me to want more.

On hearing Helen talk I wasn’t satiated, so on cutting out details for a discussion on truth at the University of Melbourne (yes, The Age is still thrown on my lawn at 5am every morning) I organised a babysitter so I could sit on a plastic seat in an auditorium and see her in person for free.
Once an e-book consumes me, usually mid-way, I itch to flick pages and sense the novel’s bulk. I walk into a bookstore or click through an e-store. Soon the paperback is in my hands and I can see its form more clearly. Essentially, I am buying the same book twice. What a lovely reward for an author who has kept the ball of my finger slipping across the screen when Facebook, kids, the dishes and sleep are calling me.

Throw tomatoes at me for not being a scaremonger. Paper won’t lose its fascination. Nothing can replace thumbing through a book that has been loved and is well worn. No wonder shelves are full of outer shells whose insides haven’t been touched for years. Relics of our pasts, their spines are as good as photos, showing us where we’ve been.

Only after seeing Alice through Tim Burton’s kaleidoscope was my oldest son remotely interested in the book. Finally, I was able to tell him how drawn I had been to modern/antique pictures on crème, the hardback bought before he was born so that we could read it together. For the first time he looked at what I yearned to show him for eight years. Tonight we continue an adventure my second-cousin likens to a trip on LSD.

When moving pictures and written word come together to feed and inspire each other I rejoice for an opportunity to live in the 21st century. If a movie can interest boys in a book they might not otherwise read, then Alleluia. Two more literate children.

If an iPhone provides a mother with twenty more minutes reading a day, doubling last year’s intake by this year’s May, then bravo kindle for luring her into gaining a little more intellectual and psychological prowess.

I walked through Borders last night. It was like being at a wake of a person I never kind of liked but visited anyway.

The demise of the local bookstore? I wonder how it can fight for my dollar now Book Depository can mail books to me at a fraction of what I used to pay. I’m still fronting up. I will pay for an experience by buying what I like when in store. I hope I don’t have to drive to the next suburb for the privilege soon. That paper won’t become my expensive treat.

My greatest fear is that publishing houses will not be able bring out paperback, hardback, audio, e-format and whatever else our future fancies. I dearly hope that support for telling stories in a myriad of mediums grows rather than diminishes; that stories, in all their forms, thrive.

Diane Simonelli

Diane Simonelli has worked in marketing, publishing, PR and on websites in Melbourne and London. Her short stories have won awards including the Boroondarah Literary Prize and her second novel received an Australian Arts Council grant. A mother of two young boys, she delights in new forms of media and treasures classic print.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The more the merrier – formats, outlets etc., Really enjoyed reading this essay – positive and thoughtful – it’s all good (except maybe if you own a bookstore). I agree with the last paragraph – I hope we never reach a situation where most books are never printed, and we just have the e version – arghh!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Gabrielle. So much is changing. This week John Locke became the first author to self-publish a million Kindle e-books. Hours ago JK Rowling announced the October launch of Harry Potter ebooks and audiobooks (with her agent, not her publisher) through the new Pottermore website.

      The challenge for our bookstores is to proactively engage with consumers. I’m not talking paper promos here. Readings, for example, sells online, tweets, emails regularly, gives away movie tickets, provides book launches and more to really connect with readers. The Carlton store is a gorgeous space. When I’m there I find it hard to leave.

      The dare for us – if we are to keep the paper book and store alive – is to break away regularly from our iPhones, iPads, Kindles and laptops, settle somewhere comfy (a bed or couch will do), hold a printed treasure in the hands and keep turning the pages.

  2. I like the above because it’s ultimately a meditation on one family’s place in the digital age. I suppose the moral of this particular story is that the family will find a way. But I’m curious – the family unit is now more abstract than ever. So what happens to it in this age of all things i

    The post also reminded me of I Read Where I Am, a project documenting the observations of 82 “amateur-experts” on the future of reading:

  3. Well written essay, and ever so true.
    When visiting my kids (Y generation) and grandkids their heads are always into their ipods, ipads checking face book, playing game or answering text and the like, so conversation with them or the grandkids is scant.
    As a grandmother I still love to read to the grandchildren ‘real’ books.
    Good to hear that you take time to read to your children thus encouraging literature.. As I work full time and have little time for book browsing at shops, was very impressed with the prompt receipt of books for my grandchildren in the mail last week, via a recent discovery of online buying ‘depository’.
    Here here. hope the paper trail is never lost

    1. Edging a book into their gadget-filled lives can be tricky, Marion. I applaud you for fostering a love of classic books in your grandchildren. May they always know the smell, feel, sound and colour of print on paper.

  4. what a brilliant piece. it reminded me of the battle I face weekly – book depository versus the wonderful tactile and visual glide through a bookshop. It also reminded me of why I sacrifice sleep for my nightly guilty alone time that transports me to another world. Thankyou for sharing your world interwoven with an artful analysis of our past, present and future ….I look forward to reading more of your monthly journey

    1. What a way to lose sleep, Pauline. Books are such a trip.
      Bookstores or depository? The answer for me has to do with what I want, how quickly I want it, if indeed I know what I want and which avenue I’m more likely to have success in. If it’s rare/from overseas and will take longer to acquire through a bookstore, I go online. When I want an experience, I step into a store. There’s nothing like eying covers on shelves, especially when each spine is a beauty. Online is quick, but when I want to linger, paper books and bookstores are for me. Look forward to hearing more from you too. Thanks for reading.

  5. “I’m not against e-books in principle – I’m tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person’s internal life – can sing.

    1. ‘Books are not just physical objects and they’re not even necessarily things we take in with our eyes… That’s not the way the first audience took in the greatest writer in our tradition, William Shakespeare…

      ‘I think we need to separate the idea of the artistic work made up of words from the form we experience it.’

      Peter Craven, speaking on ‘Reading in a Time of Change’ podcast 10.12.10.

  6. You’ve expressed my thoughts exactly (and better) if I may say so. I can see why your a winner. My children are also inspired into the tangible realm of written literature from their digital exploration. A fav app on our iPad is the ‘POP” ebook of the classic tale “Peter Rabbit” and learning to read apps from Dr Suess. We too have hoarded a large collection of childhood favourites and new tales alike in print and we eagerly await when our 2 and 4 year olds are ready, ever baiting them with games and movies until we have their attention and then we snuggle down at night to revisit our fond friends all over again.

    So I guess it’s up to business owners now to find a way to make technology their friend also. It really can open up new doors and new business if looked at with and open and optimistic mind.

    I look forward to reading more, both online and in print, from you too Dianne.

    1. Wow, Melanie. It sounds as if your apps educate as well as entertain. I’ve just seen a trailer for ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ which integrates text with film and it’s astounding. Love to hear what you think. I can imagine children wanting to read and experience this story over again.

      We too snuggled in bed tonight, blown away by the first chapter of Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventures of the Wishing Chair’. We read from a book that was thirty years old. The pages were stiff and musty. My children were entranced.

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the introduction of Flipback books in the weeks and months to come. I imagine we’ll be visiting our local bookstores more, for new experiences in a traditional settings.

  7. Thanks TF, for your insight. It’s tricky. Choice is what we hope for, yet too much can be debilitating. As a parent, expecting less from myself (I don’t have to be a master chef, better gardener, spotless cleaner and promoter of extracurricular activities) while re-engaging with my passion – stories – has been my way forward.

    With its ‘street readers’ and ‘info junkies’ whizzing through ‘three lives at once,’ has great verve. Visually, I find it stunning. Here are 82 stories of authors, artists, critics and designers. I am reading # 9 and look forward to ‘watching’ how 73 others devour and produce information now.

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