In September, I joined a new book club. In our first organizational discussion of the club, everyone agreed that it would be fun to read a wide variety of books, from classics to the silliest genre fiction, old books and new, popular and literary.
Our first two selections were contemporary popular novels, so for some reason my brain immediately jumped to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I tentatively suggested this Victorian classic for our November meeting, and everyone got excited. We'll see if they are still excited once they've read all 646 pages of it. Attention spans these days are not what they were in 1860 when Collins' brilliant novel was published. I was, in fact, shocked at how I had to rearrange my own thinking to get into the right frame of mind to savor its leisurely style.
I first read The Woman in White in graduate school and wrote a lengthy--and trendy--feminist paper examining how Collins portrayed women and power in what is essentially one of the first crime/mystery novels ever written and one of the finest novels of all time. I wrote the paper because I loved the story and the characters and because it is an excellent piece of prose.
But it is a Victorian novel, originally written and published as a serial in a literary magazine run by Wilkie's friend Charles Dickens. What, indeed, will a 21st century book club make of it? Will its leisurely prose and descriptive passages seem tedious to electronic-age eyes? Can we slow down enough to see how relevant and modern this novel really is? Will the women in our group enjoy the experience?
Oh, how I want them to enjoy it!
I searched B&N.com on my Nook for free copies of the classic. Reviews indicated that the free e-book versions were riddled with typos and errors, and it seemed silly to pay $5.95 for a decent e-book when I already spent $5.95 in 1993 for the paper copy on my shelves.
I retrieved my old Penguin Classic and noticed a couple of faded post-it notes peeking out the top. One post-it is stuck to the page following the book's end notes and so might have made flipping to them easier, but the other seemed randomly placed in the middle of the novel and served no knowable purpose. Both post-its are no longer yellow but burned brown from the acid in the paper.
As I thumbed the copy more, noticing notes and underlining in red, pink, and purple ballpoint ink, I uncovered a bookmark whose source is a mystery.
I cannot remember ever visiting the Ozark Folk Center in Arkansas. George cannot remember it either. We both remember driving through Little Rock once, long ago, but no other details come to either of our minds. How I acquired the bookmark and how it came to reside in my copy of The Woman in White will remain a mystery. I am using it now, in this re-reading, and will likely leave it here for whatever future the book will have.
All sorts of interesting ephemera turns up between the pages of old books. In The Woman in White, Laura cuts a lock of her hair and tucks it into a sketchbook. She asks her sister to send the book to the man Laura loves if Laura dies before him. When he finds the lock of hair, he will know she loved him.
I once found a single strand of my dog's fur in my hardcover copy of The Lord of the Rings. The dog, a Samoyed named Shemya, had died years before, and when I found the single, long white fur from her gloriously furry tail, I teared up, returned the fur to the book, and left it there.
The thrill of mysterious discoveries and the sentiment of mementos lovingly or accidentally placed between the pages of old books will become a thing of the past if paper volumes continue to be replaced by electronic books.
I enjoy my Nook tablet. It is convenient, easy to read in most lighting conditions, and allows me to play Sudoku and check Facebook at the swipe of a finger. It's also lightweight, fits in my purse easily, and holds more books and movies than any backpack I could carry. I can also download a new book at midnight from the comfort of my bed, which, I assure you, is pure bibliophilic hedonism.
But the Nook's not perfect. The battery dies. Reading in bright sunlight is difficult. In the rush to get books published electronically, quality has suffered. Many e-books are poorly proofread and edited, making the reading experience somewhat akin to grading freshman composition essays rather than escaping into a fine and carefully printed volume.
We pay a price for convenience, just as we pay a price for printed books. I only hope, in the long run, this brave new world of electronic books doesn't take away more than it gives us.
Only time will tell.