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.