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JOHN DeMONT: The joys of the printed book

They were fresh-faced and clear-eyed, the men and women I had breakfast with at an alarmingly early hour yesterday. There were only a couple of dozen Atlantic booksellers enjoying the eggs and fresh fruit, the croissants and life-yielding coffee.
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I keep books around for a long, long time. Sometimes, for no obvious reason, I pull one off of the shelf. When I do, I remember things. Trips and vacations since, for me, the chance for some uninterrupted reading is one of the joys of being out of the office — and why the pre-vacation ritual of picking the reading list takes as long as choosing the wine for a couple of weeks away from home. (LOCAL XPRESS / File)

They were fresh-faced and clear-eyed, the men and women I had breakfast with at an alarmingly early hour yesterday. There were only a couple of dozen Atlantic booksellers enjoying the eggs and fresh fruit, the croissants and life-yielding coffee.

Less than the last time I was there, in 2013. Then the numbers were smaller again than they were in 2009, the first time I joined these folks.

The point is that they were there. Just a few years ago, the forward-looking thinkers predicted that in the day of big-box bookstores and ebooks, independent booksellers would soon be as anachronistic as buggy-whip makers, gas lamplighters and hot-lead typesetters.

Yet, just a few weeks ago there, in Canadian Business magazine, was a story about how printed book sales were rising again in this country while ebooks had clearly plateaued (accounting for just 16.8 per cent of total sales in 2016, a decline from 19 per cent a year earlier.)

This is great news. I say this as a guy who writes books — in some cringeworthy product placement, my breakfast presence at the Atlantic Booksellers Book Fair was due to a new one coming out in the fall — but more than anything as somebody who loves to consume them.

Books, more than movies, television or music, have provided the signposts of my life. Just today on Twitter I joyfully hopped onto a string of exchanges about the Hardy Boys, of Bayport crime-solving fame.

Their adventures — like the brainy Tom Swift and all of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and John Carter on Mars books — enlivened my youth. In fact, my reading tastes haven’t really changed much from the plot-driven, heroic stuff that I devoured over my Cap’n Crunch.

That’s not the only reason why just a glimpse of the blue spine of one of the Grosset & Dunlap Hardy Boys series — adorned with Frank and Tom Hardy’s silhouettes, a number representing the book’s sequence in the series, and the name of Franklin W. Dixon, a pseudonym for a long line of Hardy Boys ghostwriters — gives me a nostalgic twinge.

There’s something about a physical book, the weight in the hand, the tactile feel of the paper. Books have a smell.

Every one of them — well, at least those made by people who care about books and not just profit margins — is a piece of art.

They carry memories — not just in the words.

I keep books around for a long, long time. Sometimes, for no obvious reason, I pull one off the shelf.

When I do, I remember things. Trips and vacations since, for me, the chance for some uninterrupted reading is one of the joys of being out of the office — and why the pre-vacation ritual of picking the reading list takes as long as choosing the wine for a couple of weeks away from home.

So I recall, for instance, the stories of Jorge Luis Borges on New Brunswick’s Parlee Beach and Raymond Chandler, when I seemed to be the only person on a beach over across the Northumberland Strait in Prince Edward Island.

On my shelf stands a book that I didn’t much like, but which I keep around anyway maybe because it reminds me of a Montreal rooftop where my wife and I drank rosé while taking a break from the tennis matches at the Rogers Cup.

Whenever I fondle a paperback by the Dutch crime writer Janwillem van de Wetering, I remember Amsterdam because that is mainly what he wrote about, and also because there, in an English language bookshop, I picked up a book by him for the first time.

Since I am a messy man who does not tend to read in a good chair in a well-lit room, there’s a story inherent in every volume.

Red wine splatter inflicted at a dinner table or while I sat in a chair in some hazy summer backyard.

A darkish spill from an early-morning cup of coffee. A stain after I dropped it into the bathtub, or salt water from being picked up, after insufficient towelling off, at the beach.

A book I’m reading right now has a couple of tiny red smears on its pages. If I hold onto it, as I tend to, for years to come, I will remember a summer night, eating fresh cherries with my hands, and reading something so captivating that I couldn’t wait to use a napkin before picking it up again.

Try getting that from a Kindle.

John DeMont’s latest book, The Long Way Home: A Personal History of Nova Scotia, is published by McClelland & Stewart in October.



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