Our Reading Lives

An Elegy to Paper Advance Reader Copies

One of my favorite things about reviewing books is mail. Book-shaped brown envelopes waiting by the mailbox are tiny reminders that I, too, am a part of the literary world. Of course, like most reviewers, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t read all of the packages that ended up on my door, but even the ones I didn’t read felt like a bit of hope. Who knew what page in what book would change me for good?

I loved the way the note from the publisher fell out of the cover, often onto the floor, its letterhead glistening on expensive paper. I love the publication date on the side proclaiming to the world, “HERE I COME!” Or how often the galleys are a work of art separate from the final versions.

Just as COVID-19 has brought much of the world to a standstill, most book reviewers have now found themselves switching to digital as publishers cut back on the number of galleys they send out. Even The New York Times Book Review is reading books from their devices instead of traditional paper copies. PDFs arrive through the internet germ-free.

Even for me, someone who does not have to read quite as much a book reviewer for the Times, the eye strain is getting worse by the day. I am an adjunct at a community college, which is now all online; I also write regularly for three different publications. My life was screen heavy before this began, now I spend even longer on them. I check the news, incessantly scrawl through Instagram, and I often try to unwind by listening to an audiobook or podcast while playing one of those stupid puzzle games.

When it is over, and I can get my brain quiet, it is such a sincere pleasure to curl up with something that does not glow or require a power cord. My last ARC arrived in March. I am reading it with an unusual slowness, enjoying each time I hear the sweet scrape of a turned page.

The literary world has not escaped the chaos and the slow down brought on by the pandemic. Publication dates are moved around, bookstores are closed and struggling. Public readings: the way many authors make money and sell books have been canceled or transferred online.  It is one big mess. I am not the first Rioter to have written about it.

It feels a bit strange, bellyaching about the loss of book mail, partly because there are still some advance reader copies for upcoming books floating about and getting sent out in envelopes. The big reason, though, is that there is so much more to worry about right now. I worry about the health and safety of essential workers, those sick and dying alone, the massive inequality that has been made worse by both by the virus and a corrupt, greedy, colonial, capitalist system. As I write this, sirens wail past as the city of Chicago goes into lockdown due to the protests against police brutality.

However, it is important to let my heart and your heart and everyone else’s heart mourn the little things lost in the tide of disaster. For me, a few of those things are the smell of a bookshop, the creek of folding chair during a reading, and book mail.

Still, I persevere, just as we all are. I know that books are often the candles for joy when the storms of different styles rage outside the window, so I fire up the computer and download PDFS. There are books to be read and paper ARCs will be back when we are ready.