Commentary

Page Turner: E-books vs. real books

Originally Published: April 15, 2011
By Jim Caple | Page 2

"Print is dead."

-- Harold Ramis in "Ghost Busters," which was released 27 years ago

Let me begin by saying I get the appeal of e-books. They're lighter and cheaper and ... actually, no, I don't get the appeal. I mean, I definitely understand why people like them. I just don't see how they are this incredible, groundbreaking advantage over real books when you really break it down.

1. E-books are easily transportable. Well, yes. But so are real books. I mean, how lazy can we get? How friggin' hard is it to hold a book in your lap? Or carry it on a plane? I seldom say, "Boy, my edition of 'Seabiscuit' weighs as much as the damn horse! I need to call a red cap to help me carry it into the terminal!''

(OK, maybe that 90-pound "Super Bowl XL Opus" book is a little heavy.)

2. E-books are great for traveling. Yes, I can see that. You can bring an unlimited number of books with you on a trip without taking up space better used for replica jerseys. And that's a good thing. But at the same time, you can't read an e-book copy of "Into Thin Air" while the plane is below 10,000 feet or beginning to land or sitting on the runway for five hours at O'Hare. Reading while the plane taxis is absolutely crucial because that's when your head needs to be buried in "Among the Thugs" (Bill Buford's tremendous account of hanging with soccer hooligans) to firmly establish that anyone attempting a conversation with you might wind up on a six-week liquid diet.

Plus, say you're relaxing on the beach or by a pool on vacation. You can't leave your e-book unattended while you walk along the surf or go to the bar for a drink served in a coconut with a tiny umbrella in it. No one is going to steal my copy of "Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Golf and Life" off my beach towel, even if I use a photo of a naked Waffle House waitress as a bookmark. But people will steal an iPad, so I'll have to carry it all the way to my hotel room, where I'll get distracted watching the Giants-Dodgers game and wind up spending the rest of the afternoon inside. So e-books aren't really so convenient then, are they?

A good friend who very much enjoys her Nook says that while it has a long battery life, she warns this is true only if you remember to charge it up. Good point. Otherwise, you'll be in a plane chasing the setting sun as you read "Friday Night Lights" when your e-reader suddenly goes dark, forcing you to listen to someone talk about how he could throw a football over those mountains when he was a high school quarterback.

3. E-books cost less than a book. Well, yes. And no. You have to buy the e-reader first, which is a large upfront cost, like paying the posting fee to sign a Japanese baseball player. And then you have to trust that the manufacturer will always keep its product compatible with all book downloads and that it won't require any repurchases due to gizmo updates down the line. And that once the very few e-book providers have cornered the book market, they will keep prices low out of the goodness of their hearts. Given that I've purchased "Sgt. Pepper" on vinyl, cassette, CD and download (fortunately I missed the 8-track), I'm betting I would have to buy so many versions of "The Blind Side'' that I'll feel like Lawrence Taylor is cranking my knee like it was a pencil sharpener.

Also, you have to trust that you won't damage or lose your e-reader, which my wife knows would not be the case for me. She knows I will leave it on a plane or spill my drink on it while cheering a home run and have to buy everything all over again.

Oh, and one thing that keeps me from completely blowing my budget on books is that I can see the stack of unread books in my office, which is a physical deterrent to buying more. If the books were stored unseen in my e-device, I probably would buy even more books I'd never get around to reading -- "Don Cherry's Hockey Stories 2" -- negating any possible savings.

4. E-books are convenient! Yes, they are. Need a copy of Neal Bascomb's "The Perfect Mile'' in less than four minutes? You can beat Roger Bannister's time with an e-reader. But convenience also comes at a steep price. When everyone has these things -- and we will soon -- there will no longer be bookstores because there will be no more printed books to stock on their shelves. And I love bookstores! Bookstores are my most favorite places in the world, even more than a ballpark. (If a ballpark had a bookstore, I would never leave.)

There are few greater pleasures for avid readers than to aimlessly wander a bookstore while skimming books and titles you would never have seen or considered otherwise. I don't want to give that up just so someone can download Rick Pitino's next self-help book -- "Restaurant Sex is a Bad Choice!'' -- exactly three minutes after it is "published."

5. No paper cuts. OK. You've got me there.

BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

[+] EnlargeRoberto Clemente
Fantagraphics Books Click here to purchase "21."

My two passions growing up were baseball and comic books, and my heroes were Willie Mays and Daredevil. If only someone could have combined it all. Fortunately, now author/illustrator Wilfred Santiago has done exactly that with his recently released "21," a beautiful graphic novel that tells the life story of Roberto Clemente. (Check it out at 21comix.com.)

Santiago has a stunning, cinematic style, and "21" is filled with gorgeous illustrations that capture the power and grace of Clemente as no standard book of black and white type ever has or could. (Good luck fully enjoying this one on your Kindle.) A panel showing Clemente cracking his back in the on-deck circle immediately swept me back to the early 1970s when the Pirates right fielder was one of the game's most dazzling players. And I love the page that opens the 1960 World Series by showing a dark, imposing Air Force bomber emblazoned with the Yankees logo flying overhead and dropping baseballs on Pittsburgh.

Clemente so resembles a superhero in some of Santiago's drawings -- he soars to catch fly balls in a single bound -- that he ought to wear a mask over his face in addition to his Pirates uniform (which, come to think of it, wouldn't have been a bad idea for recent Pirates teams). This is no coincidence: Clemente was (and is) a hero to millions. He just didn't have a secret identity, a Bat Cave or a radioactive origin.

On the other hand, he did have a right arm that virtually qualified as a superpower.

By appealing to all ages, "21" is a wonderful way to introduce younger readers to one of baseball's most important players and a great way to introduce older readers to the story-telling power and sophistication of graphic novels.

Santiago takes a moment to discuss "21," Clemente and the art of the graphic novel.

PAGE TURNER: What are the similarities between well-muscled athletes in their uniforms and superheroes in their costumes? What athlete do you think is most similar to a superhero?

WILFRED SANTIAGO: One obvious similarity is that athletes are physically superior. They're mega-humans, faster, stronger and more agile than the average Jimmy. What athlete is most similar to a superhero? It depends on what type of superhero you're talking about. There are heroes like Bruce Wayne who taught and trained himself to be Batman, then others like Spider-Man who got his power artificially after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Same with athletes; you either work to be Batman with old-school training techniques or get the sting of a "radioactive" needle to achieve your powers.

Of course, in Peter Parker's case, it was an accident.

PT: What is your baseball background and what inspired you to do this book?

WS: Baseball, basketball and football are childhood memories. I haven't played baseball in decades so it was great to tap into those experiences. As an artist and writer, your work can benefit greatly from subjective experiences. After my previous graphic novel, I knew I wanted to do a biography and it was a matter of choosing the subject. Clemente came on top at the end of that process.

PT: How so? What was the appeal of Clemente?

WS: Clemente's appeal is exactly what you see in "21.'' He had many sides but the story of a young person from a humble background going against the odds, overcoming obstacles and challenges, the struggles, anger, injustice, the loneliness, while not losing himself in the process, was compelling. On top of it, he did not conform to being an average athlete or human being but excelling as both. And he did it during one of the most volatile times in America. This is a story that spoke to me, and I couldn't pass. I also got to dip into baseball; it was a great experience dissecting the sport.

PT: My favorite panel is the one showing Clemente cracking his back at the plate just before his 3,000th hit. When I saw that while leafing through the book, I said, "THAT is Clemente.'' With that in mind, what do you think you're able to convey through a graphic novel that someone wouldn't through a standard bio?

WS: "21'' is meant for entertainment and enrichment, so for someone who's interested in learning only about Clemente's life, a standard biography will do. When it comes to biography, what I do with it is an interpretation of a story already written. What I bring is the unique medium of comics, which allows me to tell the story to the best of my abilities. And when it came to baseball, it felt right at home. I spent much more time preparing for a page than drawing and writing the page itself, and I hope I got those baseball scenes right.

PT: You call this a graphic novel, not a graphic bio. How much of it, then, is fiction? I know a lot of the playing career details are factual. What makes it a novel?

WS: A biography has a chain of events, and sometimes links are missing in that chain. You might know a fact like Clemente dined with Vera, his future wife, at a hotel, but not what they actually ate. As a writer, I had to speculate on whether one of the characters commented on the soup or whatever. Graphic novel is just a term; you have to call it something, and at this moment, this is just practical. Graphic novel biography, comic book biography, they are all fine to me. The dedication inside the book to Clemente refers to "21'' as a comic book, while on the cover it says graphic novel. I don't get hung up on what to call "21.'' There has been this useless debate for what feels like decades in the comics community about what to call graphic novels. Is it a correct term? Is it a comic book for pretentious people who are afraid to call it comic books?

The way I see it, what did they call "paparazzi'' before Fellini's "La Dolce Vita,'' where the name presumably came from? Were there debates about what to call the pesky photographers before the movie?

PT: How do you think the world of graphic novels is changing the way Americans view the "comic book'' narrative form?

WS: Oh, that is still to be seen. Readers of anything are an endangered species. I think all the superhero movies work against the actual form not because they are movies but because they are mostly bad movies. And for the general audience, that's the perception of what comic book and graphic novels are all about. And, they have an opinion even if they haven't read any lately. Sometimes the big companies pack a crappy collection of comics in hard cover format and call it a graphic novel, while Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home'' is also considered a graphic novel. It's the duty of a comic book reader to let others see a comic book as nothing but what you make it to be. And when done right is one of the most awesome things.

PT: When will the Pirates be good again?

WS: Are you kidding? As soon as the Cubs win the championship.

ALSO RECOMMENDED

To continue the theme of numerically-titled books, we have Kostya Kennedy's very readable new book, "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports.'' I'm not sure if I completely buy the premise that 56 is the last magic number in sports. True, the home run numbers have lost their meaning and Cal Ripken Jr's playing streak number hasn't been around long enough to have the resonance Lou Gehrig's did. But I think Ted Williams' .406 is a pretty magic number as well. In fact, I dare say almost every American male knows three magic numbers by heart: 56, .406 and the price of unleaded at the nearest gas station.

But that's a minor quibble to an entertaining book. Kennedy not only provides a splendid re-telling of the streak, he gives a good, even-handed account of DiMaggio, both his good and bad traits (the chapter on his first wife is particularly interesting). He also captures just how big a deal his streak was at the time, and yes, how magical a number 56 remains.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.


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Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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