In Praise of Free Ebooks: Two by Monica Dickens and One by Howard Spring

‘It was a real scroller. I couldn’t put down my screen.’

A headline caught my attention last month at The Guardian: ‘Ebooks are stupid’, says head of one of world’s biggest publishers.”  Arnaud Nourry, CEO of Hachette Livre,  told a publication in India:  “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

What a confusing description of the e-book!  If it’s “exactly the same as print,” why is it “stupid”?  The gist of the article is that e-books are unprofitable for publishers.

I love books, but I also love e-books.  Personally, I think the e-reader is a very “smart” product. We now enjoy access to out-of-print titles for free in e-book form at the Internet Archive.

Here are three stunning free e-books you can download at Internet Archive!  Monica Dickens and Howard Spring are two of my favorite middlebrow authors.

Two by Monica Dickens.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, a brilliant novelist and memoirist.

The heroine, Louise Bickford, a  57-year-old widow, is a superfluous woman.  She is unwanted, shunted from one daughter’s house to another’s. Her winters at  a friend’s hotel are equally stressful, because her friend moves her out of a nice room into an inconvenient  corner for the sake of a customer.  And then one day in London,  Louise is at a tea room and meets Gordon, a kind, obsese man who writes her  favorite pulp mysteries.  Their friendship inspires her to become more independent.  It takes time:   her daughters will not let her apply for a job at a department store.  The book is charming, realistic, and comical!

The Nightingales Are Singing by Monica Dickens.  Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., this fascinating novel is part domestic comedy, part  analysis of a marriage.  The unmarried 34-year-old heroine, Christine, head saleswoman of the  book department at a department store, is known as “the estimable Miss Cope.” She “moved calmly about the alleys between the bright new paper jackets, knowing that book customers liked to take their time, unlike the thrusters who stampeded through the Notions with never a moment to spare.” She finally meets a man, an American naval commander who wants to marry her.  He gives her family much-appreciated food that Americans have access to.   Christine does not particularly like him but she does not want to end up like Aunt Jo, a spinster.  In Washington, D.C.  she must adjust to her  husband’s conservatism and a new culture.

Parts are screamingly funny.  When they move to a new house, Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists  to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine. The marriage has ups and downs, sometimes comical, sometimes very sad.  Dickens has written an insightful domestic novel.

One by Howard Spring.

My Son, My Son by Howard Spring.  The Welsh writer Howard Spring wrote several spellbinding novels. In his brilliant, partly-autobiographial novel, My Son, My Son,  he explores the influence of a successful writer’s poverty-stricken childhood on his later relationships–especially the bond with his golden, tragically ruined son, Oliver.

In clear, simple prose, Spring relates this heart-rending story of filial love, success, and ruin.  The narrator, William Essex, is looking back at his life. His childhood was Dickensian:  his mother took in washing;  Bill was taunted and beaten up when he picked up the laundry bundles. When he is 12, a  minister, Mr. Oliver, teaches him to read and gives him a job. When Bill commences work as an office boy, he meets the most  faithful friends of his life: he rooms with the O’Riordans, who read Dickens aloud after dinner, and their son, Dermot, an Irish radical patriot who has never been to Ireland,  dreams of making handmade furniture as beautiful as that of William Morris.  Eventually, Bill marries for money and becomes a writer.  But when Dermot carves wooden toys for Bill’s son, Bill suggests they go into the toy business together.   And so both men make a fortune, and at the same time have time to perfect their arts, Bill in writing and Dermot in furniture-making.

Bill and Dermot want their sons to help them fulfill their fantasies, but Bill spoils Oliver, who becomes a liar, cheater, and general ne’er-do-well.  Dermot raises his son Roray as an Irish radial and perversely ships him to Ireland when he is in teens.

This well-written, well-crafted fast read creates a believable world–and, yes, it makes you cry, so be prepared to wallow!

Who’s the Ship? The iPad and I

the ship who sang anne mccaffrey 9780345018816-us-300A few years ago, after Anne Mcaffrey died, I resolved to reread my favorite of her SF novels, The Ship Who Sang.  Alas, I couldn’t find my copy. But, as I recall, the heroine, Helva, a human being born with severe physical disabilities, is implanted in a spaceship as its brain. She chooses  a human partner to live and work with:  the human provides the brawn.  Sadly, they have different life spans:  she outlives her partners and is “widowed” more than once.

I love SF, and any excuse to read it will do. But I also thought  it might illuminate the complexity of our modern communion with computers.

I love my new iPad, but today, after several hours reading on it, I developed a headache.  The screen was too bright:  I haven’t quite got the hang of adjusting it.  And once again I thought of The Ship Who Sang. I wondered about my relationship with my tablet.  Which of us is the brain and which the brawn?  Which of us is Helva?

It’s hard to say.

Well, I’m not goofing around with Siri or any complicated smart apps, so I consider myself the brain and the tablet the brawn.   I confess I am using it as an e-reader, because it provides e-book apps for the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks.  Between us, my husband and I have had six e-readers of various persuasions over the years (they don’t last forever).   On my iPad,  I have access to ALL my different  e-libraries except the Sony Reader.  It’s great!

It is ironic that I am getting serious about e-books when others are going back to the book, or so the newspaper articles say.  But, honestly, I have so many books that it verges on clutter.  I never thought I’d say that. I don’t mind all the bookcases, but I don’t even know what we have in the boxes.  I give away books the minute I finish them these days.

Then there are the local bookstore problems.  I mentioned last week that I could not find a copy of  Tessa Hadley’s The Past at an indie.  What I didn’t tell you was that I couldn’t find it at our local B&N, either.


So I bought the e-book.

Hadley’s The Past is very enjoyable.  Four siblings spend three weeks in the old house where they grew up, which is disintegrating yet redolent of enchantment and fairy tales.  The middle sister, Alice, 46, adores the cottage and  loves her grandmother’s letters, the beautiful china, and especially their childhood books.  She picks up a copy of E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods and is transported to another time.

And here’s where I know I’m letting down the side by reading e-books.

The very weight of the book in her hands, and the thick good paper of the pages as she turned them, and the illustrations with the boys in their knickerbockers and the girls in pinafores, seemed to bring back other times–the time when she had first read this, and behind that the time when such children might have existed.

Heavens, E. Nesbit was my favorite writer when I was growing up.  I even know those illustrations by H. R. Millar!

So what am I doing with these e-books?

Well, it’s modern life.  What can I say?

Notebooks vs. Leatherette Diaries & E-books vs. Real Books

One of these notebooks will go to London.

One of these notebooks will go to London.

I am planning my trip to London.

Two carry-on bags.

And a notebook.

I have a laid-back approach to vacations. I pretend I’m in a cottage, whether I’m in the country or a city.  I get up late, go to the breakfast buffet or a cafe, drink a dozen cups of coffee, hold the map upside down for a while, scrawl notes on when to turn left and right, and then go out.  I do not have a strict schedule.  I might feel like a tour; I might feel like shopping.  Then I go to a coffeeshop and that’s it for the day.

I do have one event planned.  I bought a ticket to see Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. If I feel up to going (if the sun is shining…if I feel like taking the train), it will be exactly like “The Amazing Race”: I must take a train, then find my way around Oxford (by walking, bus, or a taxi; I’ll have to Google it), then take notes if I’m not too frazzled, and afterwards take a “tour-ette” (possibly guided) of Oxford. Do the students and dons still wear robes? No?  I’d love them to look like Dorothy Sayers or Evelyn Waugh, but  possibly they look more like Hugh Laurie or Rebecca Mead, author of the book I’m reading, My Life in Middlemarch.

Fortunately the train service is excellent between London and Oxford.

There are other writers I’d like to hear at the festival, but they’re all there on different days, so I regret I’ll have to pass:  Still, if you want to, you can hear Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Man Booker Prize winner; Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, interviewing a writer I’ve never heard of; Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel winner, whose novel Snow I really loved;, and Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries and winner of the Man Booker Prize.

I have a long list of things to do in London.

Too many things.

But what notebook should I take?

I love to write about my vacations.

See the blue Apica paperback notebook labeled “Ideas for Blog”?  Apparently I had no ideas for blog. I took a few notes when I went to Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood, Nebraska.  (Her piano came on a steamboat and she embroidered her own luncheon cloths.)  But what on earth did I mean by Fish Tank, The Third Man, Mother, Fallen Angels, Old Boy, & Mary & Max?

See the orange leatherette notebook?  I bought it at Target while my husband was browsing in the sports equipment department.  I love the magnetic snap:  Close the notebook and you hear that wonderful noise. But it’s more a diary than a note-taking notebook.

Next up:  A natty Miquelerius spiral, but perhaps too big for my purse.

Last one:  an orange paperback Moleskine.  Smallish, and except for a few notes on Swann’s Way, it’s empty.

Actually it’s between the Moleskine and the Apica.

And now:  e-books vs. real books.

Harlot High and Low BalzacHere we are in 2014.

And I miss books.

I used to order print-on-demand books if my Mrs. Oliphant or George Meredith weren’t available used.

Now I buy e-books, or get them from

I miss real books.

I was looking at my Balzac collection.

“Do we have A Harlot High and Low?”  If I remember correctly, this is better than Zola’s Nana, which I’ve just finished.

“I took notes in it,” my husband said.

He was a notorious note-taker in college–my advisor once told me he was the best student they’d had in 10 years:  they were shocked he didn’t go on for a Ph.D.–and the pages are covered with notes.

I simply can’t read a book with highlightings and scrawlings.

On the occasions when I took notes in class, I wrote in a notebook.

I have to buy another copy, right?  And I want a paperback.   I read everything  for months on my e-reader and then suddenly need a real book.

E-books or books?  Which do you prefer?