How a Book is Like a Piano: Joanna R. Smith guest blog

~Today’s blog comes from Joanna R. Smith!~

I’m going to have to start this out by declaring across the board that I am a little old-fashioned. I mean, I adore my 13” MacBook and couldn’t go more than a few days without internet access and I quite enjoy air conditioning and automobiles and ChapStick and indoor plumbing.

But e-books sort of hurt my soul.

They’re convenient, of course. With hundreds of books at your fingertips, there’s no need to agonize over which one to bring on vacation; they take up zero shelf space so you never have to feel guilty for buying more; and with the handy-dandy, fancy-schmancy invention of e-readers and e-ink, you don’t even have to worry about eye strain. Just like reading on paper. Just the same as a book, because of course it is a book, packaged slightly different. The words are the same, the story the same—what does it matter how that story is presented?

Which brings me to my blog title.

I am a pianist as well as a writer and a book enthusiast, and if there’s anything that makes a pianist roll their eyes more than another rendition of “Heart and Soul,” it’s a comment that goes something like this:

“We don’t have a piano but we do have a keyboard. It has weighted keys and everything, so it feels and sounds exactly like a real piano, only it never has to be tuned—you can’t even tell the difference!”

This is, to some extent, true. Keyboards nowadays do a fairly good job of mimicking pianos, and they’re obviously a lot easier to haul around than a grand piano (or even an upright), and take up far less room. They’re a decent substitute for someone who can’t afford a real piano or lives in an apartment or just wants to try it out before committing.

But a keyboard and a piano are not the same. There’s a richness of sound present in nine feet of resonating wood and vibrating strings and eighty-eight little hammers that simply cannot be wholly captured with plastic and electronics. You could sit down at a keyboard and play a Chopin Ballade note-for-note the same as you would play it on a grand piano, but you would have a completely different experience. I’m not saying that you couldn’t enjoy the Ballade on a keyboard, and I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be Chopin—I’m simply saying you would be missing out on the resonance and complexity and depth you would get on the grand.

At this point I will freely admit to owning a keyboard. I use it mainly in sync with my MacBook to notate music or record stuff in GarageBand. I’m glad I have one; it fulfills these needs admirably. But whenever I feel like playing or writing music, I don’t go to the keyboard—I sit down at my 6’1” Yamaha Conservatory Grand (name of Imrahil, in case anyone was wondering).

Which brings us back to books again.

I love books; I love that paperbacks smell different from hardcovers (they do!), love the feel of pages between my fingers, love the look of spines all lined up nice and neat (and alphabetical) on my bookshelves. There’s something about real paper and real ink that gives story a sense of permanence and tangibility lost in electronic pixels.

I’m not ragging on Kindle and Nook and iPad users; I’m not saying you couldn’t fall in love with an e-book version of Lord of the Rings. I’m just saying you might be missing out on the richer and deeper experience of reading a book on paper, of that moment when you were sitting on the love seat in the little window nook and it was almost dinner time, and your mom was calling you to set the table and you were gripping your library copy of Return of the King with trembling hands, fingers poised to turn the page, terrified out of your mind that noble Frodo and faithful Sam were going to experience Death By Volcano and this lovely, deep, enrapturing, ridiculously thick three-volume novel was going to end terribly—

But as I said. Old-fashioned.

11 responses to “How a Book is Like a Piano: Joanna R. Smith guest blog

  1. Great blog, Joanna! I love the smell of books, too. No matter what happens, it’s hard for me to believe they’ll ever go away. So cool that yours are alphabetized! That IS love!

  2. This could have turned all ‘get off my lawn!’ but it didn’t. I am always anticipating what they’re going to come out with in the near future to make things in my life more convenient. Though I’m not a big reader (only 5’7), I do think e-books are cool. Features like a search function and the ability to download a book on the spot are totally worth switching from RL books to e-book, in my opinion. With that said, I can fully respect the preference for the original format. I know a lot of people who enjoy the weight of the book while they’re reading it or the ability to gauge how far they are into a book or how much they have left to read by comparing opposite halves of the book.
    Luckily for us all, we get the luxury of being able to utilize both real and digital books. Everything has its place. To each their own.

  3. Joanna and Kathleen, I alphabetize mine, too! 🙂 Do you do yours by author or title, Joanna? I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I even have an odd sort of subject division going on, as well. There’s the general fiction section, then there’s the theatre section, then there’s the folktales section, and so on. I think I decided to do that because my crowded bookshelf just became impossible to navigate.

    Rob, I, too, have difficulty choosing. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that I have an easier time organizing my real books (see above) than my electronic ones. Is that enough to tip the balance? 🙂 Oh, and I LOVE the way books smell. My Kindle is great, but it doesn’t have that beautiful, old paper scent.

  4. Kathleen, glad you enjoyed it! I think as long as there are still people who enjoy smelling books, they won’t ever go away!

    Irene, I alphabetize things by author, within sections—so I have my fantasy section, my classics section, my general kids’ fiction section, and so on. On my music shelf, I alphabetize by composer. If I have a lot of titles by one author, I group them either by series or by the chronological order in which I purchased them. Very scientific. 🙂

    Rob, e-books ARE shiny and cool and convenient, and I can understand why they’re gaining popularity! To each his own, indeed! 🙂 🙂

  5. All right, I’ll take the bait. I love books. I really do. The pages smell great — books are like wine in that you can tell their age by their scent. I like the feel of them in my hands (though I hate when I’m reading in bed and a book slips and hits me on the face).

    BUT, as a writer, I dislike when people say that books give you a deeper, more meaningful experience. Sure, there’s a difference between holding a book and holding a Kindle. Yet, what made you cry at the end of Harry Potter wasn’t being curled up in front of a fireplace with the super-heavy hardcover. That emotion came from the words.

    Pianos and keyboards are very different because of the “richness of sound.” Chopin sounds different when played on the first and then on the latter. But I’m not sure that words work that way. Does it matter if they’re on a screen or a page? Haven’t you ever been brought to tears by an email? Words evoke power because of the reaction they incite within a person, not because of their appearance in print or screen.

    Thanks for the provocation!

  6. Natalie, interesting point! I cried so heavily at the end of Deathly Hallows that I literally couldn’t see the pages some of the time. I remember holding that heavy hardback in my lap, my tears spilling all over the words and soaking the paper; I thought for a minute I was going to have to write JK Rowling to ask her for a replacement copy because her story made me cry so hard that I damaged the book. 🙂

    Would I have felt the same way if I’d read Deathly Hallows, Kindle version? Hrm. At the very least, maybe I would have had to ask her to pay for damages to my e-reader instead. 😉

    But I see your point. It’s the words that get us. In elementary school a teacher read us Where the Red Fern Grows, and one of the most popular boys in class burst into a fit of crying so severe that he continued through lunch. None of us had held the book in our hands or smelled its pages then. We just listened to the words, and they were equally as vivid.

  7. My husband and I had this conversation about books vs. e-readers just yesterday during a 4 hour drive. We came to similar conclusions – the experience of reading a book is a perk that isn’t the same as an e-reader. However, we are very EAGER to see e-books (and more reasonable pricing) take over the college textbook market. 🙂

  8. Bridgette,

    I’ve been getting more and more of my college textbooks for the Kindle! Apart from having to re-learn how I will mark important sections, etc., the biggest problem I’ve encountered comes when I need to write citations. Instead of (Name, 37), my citations end up looking more like (Name, Kindle version 1038-1041). A bit confusing! 🙂 Does anyone happen to know whether MLA has dealt with this situation yet?

  9. I don’t have the link handy but have seen it referenced on an English site for one of the major universities . . . I’ll try to dig up the link.

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