Tag Archive: books


ImageThe thing about recorded music is that it has always required buying an encoded object that you needed to put into a machine to listen to; everything from records to tapes to CDs required a player, and this hasn’t changed in the age of downloaded audio files. That matchbox-sized mp3 player in your shirt pocket really isn’t all that different from the paperback-sized Walkman clipped to my belt in 1982—the technology has advanced, obviously, but the role of the machine hasn’t.

But the book . . . ah, the book is a different story (as it were). You just open one with your hands and read the data on your own. It’s a tactile, organic experience, which is not quite replicated by eBooks. I don’t have anything at all against eBooks, I’ve bought them and I’ve written them. But unlike listening to recorded music, which still involves headphones or speakers just as in the days of LPs, the experience of reading has more fundamentally changed as it moved to the digital world from paper.

Sure, you’re still reading the printed/displayed word, but the feel of it is not the same. I for one continue to crave the choice of the printed book, even as I buy more eBooks. I don’t have the same feelings for my LPs gathering dust in the basement. Although the hiss and crackle of an oft-played LP induces a certain nostalgic fondness, I’d still rather hear the music clear and clean from an audio file. Outside of ancient texts, reading words from a page of a book doesn’t generally involve any comparable degradation, and the words from a printed novel will be just as easily read ten years from now. By contrast, I own eBooks—which, I must emphasize, were legally purchased—that I can no longer open due to outdated software or arcane DRM schemes. It’s like someone came into my house, pulled a book off the shelf, and glued all the pages together. Although, to be fair to eBooks, I do own some vintage printed books that would fall apart if I attempted to read them, that’s a little like a scratched old LP.

I think printed books and eBooks will exist side by side for a long time yet, even as LPs are still around alongside the iPod. And they will definitely come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, because they don’t require batteries. Just be careful with your glasses, Burgess. There’s no adjusting the font size on paper.

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ImagePosting about Patrick Stewart last week made me think of other celebrity stories where I actually met the celebrity. Way back in 1992 Peter O’Toole had published the first volume of his memoirs, Loitering with Intent. I attended a signing appearance here in St. Paul at a bookstore that no longer exists. 

Peter was running late, and a crowd of more than a hundred people was waiting patiently. Suddenly the crowd parted, and Peter, a head taller than anyone else in the room, walked briskly through us commoners in his inimitable lanky way. Women from sixteen to sixty swooned, as did approximately 10 percent of men. In his mid-sixties at the time, he still had an amazing aura of energy (metaphorically speaking), the quintessential magnetic personality. 

I knew what I wanted him to write in the book. One of my favorite movies of his is the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, in which he plays a washed-up drunk of an actor riding on the fame of bygone days. There’s a great deal of self-awareness in the role, you could say. In his first scene he shows up in the offices of a Sid Caesar–type show on which he’s the guest star, drunk as a skunk, and passes out. The boss wants to fire him on the spot. A young writer on the show bets that he’ll still be able to do the show later that week. Another writer takes the bet. Then Peter rises up, glares at the guy who bet against him, and says “Double the lad’s bet for me, you toad,” before he slowly timbers to the floor. What a great personalization that line would be. 

However, as my turn approached, I saw the sign: “No personalizing.” Peter was just signing his name. When there’s a lot of people, it’s common to keep the line moving in this way. But Peter was chatting with everyone, so it was probably more about sparing him writer’s cramp than saving time. 

Finally it was my turn. He focused his incredibly sharp bright blue eyes on me. Even as a straight man I almost swooned. “It’s too bad you’re only signing your name, because I had picked out my favorite line from My Favorite Year that I was going to have you write.” I purposefully didn’t say the line to see what his reaction would be. He leaned closer to me. “And what line is that?” 

“Double the lad’s bet for me, you toad,” I said, trying not to do my impression but probably matching the intonation fairly closely from repeated viewings. He sat up straight, threw his head back, and guffawed as only he can. Then he looked back at me, leaned forward again, and said, as he put an elbow on the table, hand in the air, “And then … the fall.” He flopped his arm down just as he had collapsed in the scene. 

Well, well. He signed his name and I was off, feeling that I had had a genuine moment with him. What a personable guy. The way he talked to everyone, looking straight at you … he really engaged. The whole thing is incredibly clear in my mind two decades after it happened. 

So that’s my Peter O’Toole story. 

[Original version posted February 4, 2009]