Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 2 June 2013

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

Traditionally, the tying of a yellow ribbon has signified the longed for return of a loved one. This blog isn’t about that... except that it is... sort of.

This blog is about books, or, more specifically, about reading paper books.

As luck would have it, every paper book I read is, quite literally, tied with a ribbon, albeit not necessarily a yellow one. The current book I am reading, which is short stories by Manly Wade Wellman is tied with a narrow lime green ribbon. The ribbon is my bookmark, tied with a bow at the spine so that it can’t slip out of the book. I have a little stash of ribbons rolled up and dropped in a round, red glass vase on a shelf in my sitting room, close to my desk. When a book is read, but not finished with, I tie the ribbon around the book. When I’m done, I roll the ribbon up and put it back in the vase ready for next time. The book goes in the dump box for recycling, or back on the shelf.

There are no ribbons with electronic books. There are no ribbons and no margin notes. There are no turned down pages or cracked spines. It’s impossible to tell the history of an electronic book, because the pages do not fade to yellow, or smell of the cigarettes that previous readers have smoked while enjoying it, or of the vanilla scent that comes with the passage of time. No one leaves a greasy thumb mark on an electronic book, and they do not fall open at the best bits, read over and over again for the delight of it.

I own a mini-ipad, and I like it. I use i-books and kindle for ipad, and they have their uses. Buying books this way can be cheaper and faster, and it kills fewer trees, I suppose. I can carry more books, more easily, and I feel less guilty if I fail to read them through or if I discard them or end up not reading them at all. They’re easier to read in bed, and many of the books that are out of copyright cost next to nothing.

They’re not the same, though, are they?

I wonder if that will change.

As things stand, I think there is a finite market for the electronic book. I don’t think book shops have quite as much to worry about from digital media as they might believe. Unless the electronic guys get really clever, I don’t think they ever will. The experience needs to become a good deal more satisfying.

Where’s the stylus for making margin notes? That can’t be far away, can it? When will the typography get properly good so that hyphenation and justification actually begin to work when font sizes are changed? That might make a difference. When will properly personalised bookmarks be available, so that I can have something approaching my ribbons back? I’m surprised they aren’t already. When will my husband be able to leave a love note tucked into my novel beside my bookmark? Why can’t he already?

There are things I don’t miss. I don’t miss the pathos of the remaindered bin in the bargain bookstore, and I don’t miss the idea that covers are being ripped off brand new, unsold books, so that they can’t be sold and don’t have to be returned. Paper weighs heavy and binning unsold books is cheaper than returning them. 

The digital age and electronic books might have some small worth, after all; it’s just a pity that the positives still don’t outweigh the negatives. Oh for some romance...

Until then, I’ll use my mini ipad when it’s convenient, but my love of books will still be tied up in paper and board and book cloth, and in those ribbons.


  1. That is one of my favourite books. So many good stories...

    1. Precisely why I elected to read it, after reading your blog about him. Smiles.

    2. What, really? Well dang, I really hope you enjoy it then.

  2. Hey Nicola,

    At least once a year when I have a day off, I go to a small cafe and enjoy reading a book that I have been looking forward to. I order a beer and some food, sit in the sun and have a great time reading as the world goes buy. I keep these books on the shelf and like you when I come back to them I find the spots caused by drips of beer or smudges from food.

    You are completely right, nothing like a hard copy. I only use digital for books that I would never usually buy or bother keeping.

    Just downloaded The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Heard good things, but is a hard copy worth it?

    Tom in Norwich (soon to be Cape Town on elective!!!)

  3. On the one hand, ebooks don't allow for books to be signed, and I take great job in the books I got signed at Games Day last year.

    On the other, if I had an ebook then I wouldn't have been kicking myself for not bringing Gilead's Blood along with me.

    Swings and roundabouts in some ways, but even the books that AREN'T signed have stories to them that no .pdf ever will.