The latest zombie books

George Calderon's "Tahiti"

The opening page of the 1921 printing

George Calderon, a respected author and translator of the day, was already in his forties when World War One broke out.  He volunteered to fight for England anyway because, as (modern day) Boston University professor James Anderson Winn wrote he had a “strong sense of obligation”.  The numerous elegies written by his contemporaries seem to indicate he was also a pretty popular guy in scholarly and other circles.  As you read the elegies, some, to modern ears, seem to verge on adoration.

Calderon was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.  He left behind a book he had nearly finished — a brilliant narrative detailing his visit to Tahiti (the book is out of copyright, and can be downloaded is various formats).  For at least five years, I have been looking for an actual copy of the book, out of print since, I think, the 1920s.

Copies of “Tahiti” showed up occasionally on eBay and book sites for around $350, often in only fair condition.  I created various search agents to notify me should the price drop.  And, recently, boy did it.  Amazon, Powell’s, basically everyone suddenly had copies at around $15.  Lots of copies.  Of course I bought one without asking any questions.

The copy of the book is truly a copy. The so-called “print on demand” version.

When the book arrived, I (carefully) tore open the packing to find a simulacrum of the book.  The typeface is old, the drawings faded, the cover image imperfect.  But the paper is perfect: brilliant white, utterly new and undamaged.  The book is a bound photocopy.  The cover, all the images, and the “printed” pages are all from scans (uncorrected scans, many are too-light) of one of the $350 copies I thought I was getting at a bargain.

Even the size of the book is off.  It’s obviously taller and wider than Calderon’s “Tahiti”, and each page sits surrounded by a moat a while space.  The blank books, before they are printed, are apparently designed to accommodate images of books up to a certain size.

Various “print-on-demand” companies are now specializing in creating these ghosts of books past.  At some book stores, such as the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a print-on-demand machine is there waiting for your order.  If the book it “out of stock”, as it would be if it were last printed in 1922, you can have it print you a copy.

The odd and feeling of holding such a book in your hand makes an e-reader seem warm and fuzzy.  The book was obviously scanned by machine, does not fit well on its too-new paper, and is stiffer than you would expect even from a new hardcover.

Worse, it plays with your expectations.  In this case, I expected an actual book, not some zombie-resurrection of Calderon.  But even in the case where you are prepared for the xeroxbook, it serves only as a constant reminder, with each page, that it is not the book.

At least the e-reader doesn’t pretend.  It’s not trying to be a book.  And now I appreciate that all the more.

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