ebooks, pbooks, Homer, and LeGuin

“And yet there is a romance and a power and a beauty and a permanence and a sense of reality that actual printed books have, which also does not translate to electronic format for me.”

Wil Wheaton, the quietest and most constant of friends

I wrote a blog post yesterday on my iPad, because I wanted to try using the WordPress app to both upload pictures I’d taken with the ‘Pad and input text with my dad’s Bluetooth keyboard while I waxed poetic on reading classic epic poems (in ebook format on said iPad). But somehow the draft didn’t get saved and the post got lost and it was a good thing. Good because when driving up to Ketchum with my dad I dove into an explanation of how I ended up reading the Iliad that was far more impassioned than the post I’d been writing, and it forced a sense of shame on me for not being as impassioned a writer as I was a soapbox conversationalist. Good because I read some other people’s posts on the internets today on topics that seemed unrelated to either the Iliad or ebooks at first glance, but in my mind pulled together of a sudden like the borders of a woven shawl snagged on a nail. Good because sometimes losing things so that you can reconsider them from scratch is exactly what you needed.

It started with a book on the clearance table at The Strand bookstore in New York City. No, wait; it didn’t. It started with an iPad, my iPad, the one I got because I was tired of hauling around a heavy 17″ laptop everywhere when often all I needed to be able to do was check email, and also because I was getting tired of hauling piles of books everywhere (and more and more of the kinds of books I read are being published as ebooks, too), and also because I had been utterly charmed by an iPad over the summer and had since pined for a gadget of my own, among other reasons. When I landed a largish paying translation job, I used some of that money for an iPad. So it began there, because part of my argument for an iPad was that I could read books and PDFs on it, something of increasing importance to me.

But I hadn’t bought any ebooks. I download PDFs of available scholarly papers and scanned copies of academic books not yet available as ebooks, and I also read the free versions of books that are in the public domain (Austen, Shakespeare, etc.). At The Strand, however, standing in front of a table full of bargain mass-market paperbacks, all of them flaunting the same notice that the paperback price was less than the Kindle version of the book (fiscal economy over physical economy), I noticed Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin.

LeGuin is one of my favorite authors. She tells tales of worlds far removed from ours and yet the stories in the tales are always about us, about home. I’m thinking especially of The Left Hand of Darkness, which was for me, when I read it in my early 20s, a haunting, nuanced, and far more compelling exploration of gender and society than the Judith Butler I’d hung my hat on in college. So Lavinia, at a mere 5 dollars and neither thick nor heavy, won me over. I had 12 hours of travel ahead of me to get to Boise, Idaho. This book was the thing to help me get through a late night waiting at the airport and the underslept crusty-eyed morning of flying following it.

In Lavinia, LeGuin writes the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid. Virgil never has her speak in the poem; LeGuin imagines the life and world of Lavinia, both before Aeneas arrived on the shores of Latium, and after. The novel explores silence and voice, story-telling and agency, all of which I find of great importance in what we conventionally call the non-fictive world.

It wasn’t the most compelling novel I’ve ever read and not my favorite LeGuin novel by a stretch. In addition to being about giving voice to the voiceless, however, it’s also about antiquity and mythologized history. It’s about the world of the classical epics. Reading the novel, I realized I knew nothing about the Aeneid. Nor could I really remember the Iliad or the Odyssey, both of which I’d been required to read in college. I had taken a course freshman year that dealt with epics, and we’d gone from Troy to Dublin, ending with Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel I actually gave up on and one of the few I proudly admit I never finished. I took a seminar on Virginia Woolf and read her response (rebuttal?) to Joyce, Mrs. Dalloway. Later I took a course on Milton, and of course the majority of the course centered on Paradise Lost. At some point I’d read portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and somehow I had escaped the Anglophilic Yale English Department with only a passing knowledge of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. All of these are classed as epics, and with the exception of the modern novels, all are poems. Lavinia, thin novel though it is, plunged me back into the poetry of the epics and the conversations that have been happening between them for thousands of years.

I downloaded the Iliad while waiting at the gate at LAX. My first ebook, bought and paid. I felt some trepidation. I love books, and when asked to put my money where my mouth is, I have always bought paper books. (Pbooks? If we have ebooks?) Now, though, I’d crossed some line in my mind, the one demarcating my position as a merely opportunistic user of the electronic format to a committed consumer of the electronic format. I felt a little strange, and a little giddy, the way we usually do when we deliberately cross some personal threshold. Not reckless, but not entirely certain what new territory I had entered into.

More books followed over the week. The Odyssey. RipRap. Red Pine’s Lankavatara. And more will follow. Not all the books I like to read are available yet as ebooks. Regarding that, however, I have learned that for the price of mere patience, I can scan things for free at the library. (The librarians content themselves with posting notices about copyright laws and not looking over the shoulders of students at the scanner.) Even if all the books I wanted to read were available in electronic format, I still wouldn’t exclusively buy and read ebooks. There is the romance, the power, and the beauty of pbooks that does not translate to ebooks; so I move forward and I move backward: I read the classic epics on an iPad, I buy paper poetry chapbooks.

I believe this is the shape of things to come: a heterogeneous reading life, at least until the power fails and our batteries die.

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