Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner (Part 1)

Have you ever gone through a lengthy period of time searching or waiting for a book to arrive in your lap that is so good, so juicy, that when you are reading it you do not want it to stop? A page-turner.

Ah, yes! We all know of this expectancy. When your craving is satisfied you devour the book. (I remember it for the first time with a pulp action novel, The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlam. Read it as a teenager. Better than any Arnie movie or Bond film. Since then I’ve known plenty of page-turners, funnily many are the pulp action genre, crime novels, scifi, thrillers, James Lee Burke, William Gibson, Louis de Berniéres, and many others.

Relatively few books have this quality, but we know they are ‘out there’, and there are probably more than we can read in a, lifetime. But finding one! It’s a haystack and needle problem. Thousands of needles waiting to prick your interest, but too much fibrous boring hay.

Yes, but rarer still is is a book so exquisitely written, or poorly written but with such a momentous plot, or with such wisdom to convey, that once you start reading it you soon feel like you never want it to end. And every paragraph seems so incredible that you find yourself lingering over psychedelically coloured phrases, or shards of wisdom, willfully allowing them to penetrate your mind and cut through the dross and boredom of your everyday life.

Pretty soon a potential page-turner has turned itself into a mind-burner.

So there are broadly, three classes of book.

The page-turners we love to find, we gasp at the final sentence and instantly feel refreshing nostalgia for that wonderful read.

The page-deadeners we leave a few bookmarks in them, dog-ear the third or tenth page, and leave vast percentages of it’s pages untouched and unstained.

Then there are the anti-page turners, the books we are almost scared to read or finish. Because finishing them would be like witnessing the death of a loved one. But if we are incredibly lucky, we find an author who is sensitive to their reader and imbues us with a sense of belonging to their book, an immersion into their story, which we are gripped by and yet feel safe in finishing, ending, dying to it. It’ll be a glorious death. It won’t hurt to finish the book, but we will feel we’ve lived an extra life. We will feel reincarnated. And yet still, we linger and avoid reading too fast and still wish it would go on forever, we dream there are an infinite hidden pages that will appear, if only we are faithful readers, so that the book will transcend it’s finite bound thickness, and inhaling every word and passage, we will discover how to turn to such pages, and create the never-ending living book that we know the author really wanted us to discover.  Their secret contract with us when we bought the book.

Then there are books that do fit infinitely many pages into a finite number of words. But I cannot speak of them. They are so sacred, and personal, and one of these, to me, could be page-deadening to you, it is a subjective quality. Therefore, not something one can speak of, or recommend to another. These must be discovered independently.

*       *       *

A cousin of mine did, once, discover an anti-page turner. She had claimed she had found a library entirely filled with page-deadening books. She had read way too much. When I suggested this to her — that she was too widely read to appreciate small gems — she took it as a challenge. She was going to keep using her library card until it’s electronic chip was worn out from scanning, until she could find one page-turner in this library.

I said, “No cheating ok. You can’t go and donate a page-turner to the library and then loan it out ok?” She laughed but agreed, this’d be serious.

So the reading and loaning marathon began. There were some near misses. But she could not honestly report that she had found a single book that she could avoid skim-reading, not so far. And she’d exhausted the crime fiction section, which has a high population density of page-turners — if you are a normal reader that is — but like I said, she was no normal reader. She had read so much literature it had inoculated her against mundane writing, against all the standard plot sequences, and typical literary devices, that normally capture an everyday reader’s attention.

It was sad for me to see this weariness in her, because I knew she loved books. Books were her life. But then life changed for her.

*       *       *

After completing a clean sweep of the romance novels, I jokingly suggested she should try the technical manuals section. I did not even know if libraries had such categories. But she was — I don’t know — so desperate? So over-taken by just the idea of this marathon exploration?  Carried away with the need to discover, rather than anymore the need to read?

Anyway, she located a a `Manuals’ section. It must’ve been something I had stored in my subliminal consciousness (I’m a regular library-goer). It really did have hard-core technical manuals. Some were miss-classified perhaps, like some were computer books, but most were real-deal manuals for various systems and appliances, some were for professionals, like manuals on plumbing and motorbike or automobile maintenance. But the appliance-type manuals were not the type you get these days, packaged with your new vacuum cleaner or PlayStation or washing machine, flimsy fold-outs with multiple language utilitarian instructions.

And there was one unifying feature of the collection. They all had the unfinished quality of a draft manuscript. No fancy cover art. Some had no author, not even an editor. It had to be the librarians joke. Something like it right? I mean, they had classified these monstrosities by their look, not their content. I’d bet some of the imprints had never actually been read before they were shelved.

Many were staple-bound tragedies of typesetting. Many were written in Courier-type font. Just hard to read even if the words had been interesting. These should all have been shelved in their respective non-fiction sections, but some loony librarian had, either ignorantly, or as a practical joke, shelved these together in the Manuals collection. But looking at them (and I appreciate a good manual) I thought to myself, “Fair enough. These are all departures from any other type of book.”

My cousin began browsing the collection of manuals. What was her fascination with these dry tomes? Novelty? You can certainly say they were novel. Then there was the art of a good manual — she was forming the abstract concept, giving birth to it like it was a new creation in her mind, all the while I watched her furiously browsing — she was becoming an instant initiate to the art of writing a decent manual, right before my eyes. An acolyte to the order of the technical writing clergy. I watched, fascinated like an anthropologist who has just found a new species of sentient vertebrate involved in some kind of instinctual food-gathering.

At first I knew what was going on. Her critical filters were in overdrive, and she was intuitively looking for the perfect manual. It had to inform the reader precisely, unambiguously, it had to be easy to read with minimal jargon, it had to have a logical layout, one for which the table of contents was a mere courtesy, because the instructions would be so clear and flowing that no cross referencing or page flipping would be required, just a sequential read. Nothing superfluous. And if she could not detect this essence of the perfect manual while browsing, then it would surely not exist here. It was, in many ways, the fastest collection in the library to browse for her current obsession.

And to be honest, I had thought she’d lost sight of her purpose, which was to find a book she could savour and suffer a small death for every night when she had to lay it down, abandoning it for a while, so she could sleep. Only she hadn’t lost sight. She just had to know if there was a manual which she could read from front to back, like a story.

*       *       *

And then she found The Ghost Drive Manual, Version 2 naked in it’s proportional-spaced Courier font, denuded of colourful illustrations, but pristine in it’s cotton-cellulose constructed perfection. Untouched by human hands, unstamped by the red ink of the library issues desk. It was her manual. She pulled it from the shelf tenderly, like a gynaecologist delivering a fragile little baby. I kid you not! I did not know what I was witnessing. Was I the step-father, or the blushing boyfriend, or the grandfather here? But I was witnessing the birth of something.

She said, “This is the one.” And we hurried over to the issues desk and I drove her home, and wished her, “Good luck with your manual.” But I didn’t know why I wished her luck. It was a funny thing to say. She said, “It’s not a manual dopey Bijou.” I was tired and had to be home an hour ago myself, so I just laughed and waved goodbye.

*       *       *

The original Ghost software was developed in Auckland, New Zealand, by Binary Research. It is an acronym for “general hardware-oriented system transfer”. It clones a computer’s hard disk for backup purposes. This was what I thought my cousin had loaned — a developers manual for the original software. A Developers Manual is quite different to a Users Manual. It’s about the same thing, but the developers version tells you how to modify the software, how to hack it, how to make something more of it, and how to iron out any bugs in it. A users manual is merely a short synopsis on how to use the software with no expert knowledge required. The developers version always assumes a lot of background knowledge. A users manual assumes none. The former is comprehensible to a genius or a professional, the latter can be understood by a literate child. A developers manual art is in giving you the secrets to the powers of creation, the users manual art is in making you not feel stupid.

I thought my cousin would at least get a kick out of it. Once she realised it’s Buddha nature, so-to-speak. The essence of a perfect manual remember? I wondered if she’d find a hint of this fragrance.

A week of busy life passed by. I was in a development phase myself, completely stressed and tired from being up nights hacking my projects, and sleeping in every other morning to recover. Then another week passed, and I had thought a few times of checking up on my cuz. I guess I thought if anything interesting had turned up at the library for her she’d let me know. We shared a few geek passions. She in literature, me in science, but the spirit is the same.

Eventually, after submitting a project after weeks of intense effort, I emailed my cousin to see if she had found a gripping book to read. A day later I received a one-liner reply:

"Sorry, been busy, still reading ghost drive manual. :-)"

*       *       *

Part 2 of “Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner” to follow when I’m not so exhausted.

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