First Edition

stack of books

By Lisabet Sarai

When did books become so ephemeral?

I have a bookshelf in my apartment full of titles I’ve lugged around for most of my adult life—from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, and then from America to Asia. Indeed, some of these books (Alice in Wonderland, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan) have been with me since I was a child. These are books I don’t want to live without. I never know when I’m going to want to re-read one of them.

Many are hard-cover. Some have begun to disintegrate with age. I recently replaced two dilapidated volumes with new editions: Little Big by John Crowley and A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I found it heartening that both these books, among my life time favorites and first read decades ago, were still in print.

Growing up, books were my closest friends, possessing a special magic. They seemed more real than many of the people around me. It is perhaps strange, given the fact that I started writing as soon as I knew the letters, that I didn’t fantasize about being an author. However, I had a famous author in my extended family. I knew that having penned and published a book was a major achievement.

I remember the thrill of holding the first edition of my first novel. It was a cheap paperback, printed on dingy, low-quality paper. Still, it had my name on the cover, and my words inside. At the age of forty six, I felt that I’d achieved some small measure of immortality.

Now, seventeen years later, sitting in my apartment storage room, I have at least a dozen copies of that book that I can’t get rid of. Living as I do in a conservative Asian country, I can’t just toss them in the trash. I don’t want to send them to readers; I’m only too aware of the weaknesses in that edition, hopefully remedied or at least improved in the most recent release of this title.

I have even more copies of the second edition, and the third. In fact I have author’s copies of dozens of books that nobody wants—including me.

I used to believe that books were forever. Now they’re just clutter, inconvenient and space-consuming.

And that’s print books. What about everything that I’ve written that has been released only in electronic form? Talk about ephemeral! In a couple of decades, as technology and file formats change, it may not even be possible to read those books. (This is assuming that people will still know how to read.)

All the blood and sweat I put into those books, the energy and the love, produced nothing more than a collection of bits, easily erased by a random cosmic ray or an erroneous mouse click. Definitely a bit discouraging.

Books these days are ephemeral in another sense, too. In the days of traditional printing, it was expensive to release new editions. The text of a novel was more or less fixed.

In contrast, when I scroll through the directories on my hard drive, I find multiple versions of almost everything I’ve written. It’s so easy to tweak a tale for a new audience. Sometimes the changes are sufficiently large that it should really be considered a new book.

Which version is the “real” book? When future generations of students study my work (ha!), which file will be take as the authoritative text, from a literary analysis point of view?

Do you know how many e-books are published now, every day? Thousands. One estimate I found said there are 40,000 new ebook titles on Amazon each week.

Even as a reader, I’ve started to treat books as temporary, disposable commodities. Mostly, my DH and I don’t hold on to books anymore, unless they’re among the best things we’ve ever read. We tend to buy in used bookstores, and pass the volumes along when we’re done with them.

Still, there must be some readers out there like me, readers who remember the books that touched them most deeply, who want to make sure they have copies for the future. I recently got a request to reprint a story I wrote ten years ago. A few people, I guess, pay attention to what I’ve written. A few people remember.

Meanwhile, when my husband went to a used bookstore recently looking for new reading material, he found a copy of Raw Silk front and center on the shelves, staring at him. First edition.

I do hope someone buys it—to keep the story alive.


By Lisabet Sarai

Over the past three weeks I’ve attended two funerals. No need to express your sympathy – both of the deceased were parents of colleagues, individuals I’d never even met. Still, one was was just a year older than I am, the other a mere three years older than my husband. Despite my determination to live in the now, there’s nothing like a coffin to make you contemplate your own mortality. I can’t help considering just what legacy I’ll leave behind, when I finally do pass away.

I don’t have kids, and my family is pretty small – two siblings, neither of whom have children, plus an assortment of cousins. It occurs to me that my circle of friends as Lisabet is actually far larger than the roster of people close to me in the so-called real world. So will my smut be missed? Probably less than my organizational ability. I might not be a best-seller, but I’m a pro when it comes to wrangling bloggers!

What about my books, though? Will they outlive me? I grew up reading authors who’d been dead for decades, even centuries. Edgar Allen Poe. Arthur Conan Doyle. H.P. Lovecraft. William Shakespeare. H. Rider Haggard. Charlotte and Emily Bronte. We writers have always consoled ourselves with the fantasy that even though we might toil in obscurity during our lifetimes, we might be “discovered” after our demise, our books finally recognized as the works of creative genius we knew we were creating while we lived. Given the state of publishing today, though, I wonder whether my books will even be available to be discovered.

The bulk of my published work over the past decade has been released primarily in ebook form, sometimes with a Print-on-Demand option. And despite my attempts to convince myself otherwise, ebooks are fundamentally ephemeral. An ebook is nothing more than a chunk of ones and zeroes, stored on some medium which needs compatible technology to be accessed. Meanwhile, technology changes constantly. Anyone (besides me) remember floppy disks? No, I’m not talking about the 3.5 inch squares of rigid plastic that stored 1.2 megabytes and fit in a shirt pocket, but real floppy disks, those fragile 5.25 inch circles of bendable magnetic material, wrapped square paper sleeves and holding a miniscule 256 kilobytes of data? Gone, of course, before some of you were even born, along with the devices that could read them. Why should CDs, DVDs, flash memory, Kindles and Nooks, be any different?

Furthermore, the ease with which ebooks can be copied, transferred, modified and deleted makes them feel like transient artifacts, to the reader and even to the writer. When I’m done reading a book for a review, I’ll sometimes archive it on long term storage, but more often, I’ll simply erase it. I know I won’t want to read it again, so why take up space on my hard drive or my tablet? On the drive where I store my manuscripts, I sometimes have two or three versions of the same story, as submitted to different publishers. Which one is the authoritative version? Which one will students of literature pore over in the far future, as they contemplate the subtle themes and glorious language in the oeuvre of Lisabet Sarai?

Of course, during the first five years of my writing career, I was only available in print. In our storage room, I have a box full of old author copies of Raw Silk (both Black Lace and Blue Moon editions), Incognito, Fire, Sacred Exchange and Cream that I’ve been trying to get rid of for years. I’ve noticed used copies of the Black Lace book selling for $150 or more on Amazon. Surely that’s some sort of legacy?

Yeah, well, maybe. But those books were printed so cheaply, they’re already starting to crumble to dust. And I don’t want to sell old books that will undercut the sales of republished versions (even though the new versions are ebook/POD only). Meanwhile, I’m nervous about getting rid of those volumes here in this conservative country where I live as a guest. I don’t want to call attention to the fact that I have so many books that they could easily label as porn – all by the same author. Definitely suspicious!

There’s another box in that closet, packed to the gills with author copies of every (print) anthology in which I’ve had a story, every collection I’ve edited, every novel or single-author collection I’ve published. One of my fellow bloggers at Oh Get a Grip wrote recently about her pride in viewing her books arrayed on a shelf in her living room. I’m proud of my work, but I can’t display it, for the reasons cited above. Still, I occasionally dig out that box and look through it, just to remind myself how much I’ve accomplished in this semi-career I fell into accidentally.

I like to imagine that after I’m gone, someone might discover that box, like a trunk of treasures in an attic. I picture a young woman, uncertain and inexperienced sexually, uncovering my secret visions. She’d hide them away and read them late at night, after her family or her roommates were asleep. They’d open her eyes to a new world of sensuality and freedom – and maybe inspire her to take a few steps into that world on her own. Now that’s a legacy that would please me.

Sometimes, though, I’m convinced that the entire concept of books as we know them will disappear. I recently read an article claiming that people born after 1990 cannot really extract information from written material. They require graphics, video, interaction, motion. When faced with a page of static text, their eyes simply flit over the letters, without grasping the meaning. If someone happened upon my books a few decades from now, would they understand them at all? Even if that individual could read, would my prose seem as complex, contorted and antiquated as Jane Austen or Wilkie Collins seem to some of us now? The always-on, lightning-fast digital world in which we live right now puts pressure on language, pressure to shorten and simplify, to encapsulate emotions in acronyms (LOL) or smileys. Did you know that the most recent update to the Unicode standard – the specification that maps all the characters in all world languages to digital codes – includes a page of values for emoticons (now known as emoji, I gather)? If that’s where we are now, what will language be like twenty years from now? (I like to imagine I’ll live at least into my eighties…!)

This train of thought depresses me more than the notion of dying, to be honest. So I’ll drop it. In fact, this entire mental exercise reinforces my belief that contemplating one’s future is a futile activity. Worrying about my legacy simply distracts me from what I want and need to do today. Much better for me to close this post, get it set up on the blog, and then get to the day’s most important activity – adding to my current work in progress.

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