Wednesday, September 03, 2014

In Praise of Old Times Not So Long Ago

Electronic media and an obsession with instant gratification are denying us many of the pleasures that come with acquiring and experiencing creative arts

Call me a purist, an antiquity—I don’t care. I still buy real books made of paper, ink, and glue, and I continue to acquire CDs. Undoubtedly, the electronic age, what with its iPads, iPods, tablets, smartphones, Kindle, e-books and other devices, has brought wonders in terms of miniaturization, compression, and speed of delivery. But for all its benefits, I cannot help but miss the old days, the pre-1990s, when people still had to go to a store to buy their books and music.

The reason is rather simple. We have sacrificed our senses on the altar of instant gratification. In this day and age, everything must be immediately available. As long as one has access to an Internet connection, books, music, movies and other creative art is downloadable. Wait a few minutes for all those 0s and 1s to flow through the ether and voila! You are now the proud owner of 65 minutes of music, a full novel, or a feature-length movie.

What you’re not getting in the process is the experience of acquisition. For me, nothing beats the excitement of going to a bookstore and seeing what’s new on the shelves. Sometimes I already know what I want, but cannot be sure that the store has it in stock. Ironically, the small sense of frustration that comes when a store doesn’t have what I want reinforces the pleasure on those occasions when it does. Another inimitable experience for me is to come upon a book I wasn’t aware of. It’s a bit like meeting a stranger for the first time. An unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, encounter. None of this occurs when you log on to or other sites to download a book. Any book.

And of course, besides the small excitement of meeting a book in person (not to mention other real people) are all the pleasures that come with holding, weighing, and smelling a book. Moreover, I love the smell of bookstores. Visit, say, the Paragraphe bookstore near the McGill University campus in Montreal (where as an undergrad I spent countless hours and about as much money) or the London Review of Books bookstore in London, which I visited recently, and you’ll know what I mean about the smell. No computer will ever beat that.

Then there is music. Your scribe likes all kinds of music, from classical, jazz, electronic, to soundtracks, progressive rock, and metal (the Swedish death metal band Opeth accompanied me all afternoon as I drafted my latest article for The Diplomat). The same joy of discovery, of expectations, accompanies a trip to the store (I almost jumped when I saw Anathema’s latest offering on the shelves at the HMV store in London, an album that has yet to arrive in Taiwan). The smell mightn’t be there, but chances are that some music will be playing in the background, or someone who works at the store will help you discover something new (one vendor at the music store in the B2 basement of the Eslite bookstore on Dunhua Rd. knows of my interest in Japanese rock music—ACIDMAN among them—and has led me in interesting directions. The same vendor I met, as a drag queen, during the LGBT Pride parade last year. Again, try beating that experience if all you do is download from the iTunes store!). I’m one of those who still enjoys unwrapping a CD and going through the case and the booklets. Some labels still go out of their way to provide engrossing visuals (if you’re into metal, Nuclear Blast still does that, as does the British progressive rock label Kscope). And those, too, have a distinct smell, one that I truly enjoy and that sometimes (given the proximity of the olfactory and memory parts of the human brain) transports me back in time (for example, some booklet have the smell of Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, which I acquired in 1991 when it came out).

Besides the olfactory and visual gratification of CDs or vinyls, which admittedly I do not collect, is the sound itself. I was raised by a father who took music very, very seriously. An engineer, my father designed, among other things, recording studios. I remember as a child spending hours sitting on the floor in an audio store, or at home, trying to hear the subtle changes in sound as my father calibrated amps and speakers. It’s a science and an art, and my father often taught vendors a few tricks in the process. Among them is the fact that the best way to prove the worth of an amplifier and a pair of speakers (or now five or even seven speaker, as we’re in the surround age) isn’t to blast the music, but rather to play it at low volume (and if your speakers are not properly aligned, they will cancel each other out and give you the odd feeling that the pressure has shifted inside your head).

But who does that nowadays, when almost everybody uses a computer, a smartphone, or an iPod to listen to music? The thing is, you’re losing a whole lot when you limit yourself to those devices. For one thing, .mp4 compression is awful (something’s got to give, and low and high frequencies are trimmed to make the files smaller). You probably won’t hear the difference if you limit yourself to the earphones that come with your cellphone. But compare playback on a proper sound system, and you’ll realize that you’d been looking at a world (if you’re not stuck zombie-like on the screen of your smartphone like most people nowadays) in which all the colors and contrasts are dimmed. Put that baby in the CD player and, if you’re lucky enough and, say, Steve Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) mixed the whole thing in 5.1 surround sound, an entire new universe will open up for you. You will never get the visceral experience of hearing the last note of Arvo Part’s In Principio (ECM) reverberating through the room and your innards if you’re listening to it on your iPod—this I can guarantee you. Music is physical, and depending on the room in which you listen to it, the experience will be a different one (sound bounces off walls).

You will therefore understand my sadness when, after completing my article this afternoon, I went for a walk and visited one of my favorite local music stores, Jason’s Records, which specializes in metal of all types, and received a so-so response when I asked him how he was doing. I’ve been going there for years. The owner knows me, and he also knows the kind of music that I like—so much so that he’ll often play something for me without saying anything until I go to the counter and, liking what I’ve been hearing, I ask him what’s playing. Thanks to him, I’ve made many a wonderful discovery over the years (Swedish doom/prog metal band Katatonia among them).  

“How’s business?” I asked him.

“Meh,” he answered, giving me back my change for Nightwish’s latest studio album (NT$370). “Everybody buys music online nowadays.”

Business hasn’t been very good. We really don’t want those small stores to close. Nor do we want to forget what it’s like to truly experience, to experience in the full, a book or an album. Some of you might be of a generation that never bought CDs, or never had a proper sound system at home. Give it a try. Life is much more generous than you’d think. (Photo by the author.)

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