My library is closed during quarantine, appropriately so, and I realized I could be spending a lot of money on books if I didn’t start trying out ebooks. So I downloaded the app cloudLibrary on my iPhone, entered in my library card information and started checking out books on my phone.
This was a novel experience (pardon the pun) for someone who has long held a prejudice against ebooks. I have refused to join the modern world in this regard, and in fact consider myself a late adopter of many forms of technology. I spend all day looking at a screen for work, and I spend quite a bit of time on social media, staring at my phone’s screen, all thumbs, giving myself carpal tunnel. The thought of spending more screen time to read felt like a disaster for my eyes. I already have poor vision.
I also have an iPad so that screen size is preferable to my iPhone, when I remember to charge it. Even so, I simply prefer the tactile feel of paper. I like looking at a bookshelf full of books I treasured. It’s a feeling you cannot replicate in a screen. We spend our whole lives on screen these days. I’m old fashioned in that respect.
But I decided to give it a shot because I wanted to read more and not spend more. So my first ebook on my phone was a selection called “Champion of the World” by Chad Dundas. I was in the mood for historical fiction and this fit what I wanted in ways I did not anticipate.
The book follows the story of disgraced wrestler Pepper Van Dean through several different life sequences, all showing the decaying world of wrestling in the Prohibition Era from different lenses on various settings. In the opening of the book, we find out that Van Dean lost the lightweight championship in a fixed match, and ever since travels with a carnival performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” act and five-cent wrestling bouts with all comers. His wife Moira, a card sharp who was raised around poker tables and smoky bars by her gambling father, travels with him. Van Dean, despite his flaws, is a champion of what is called the “scientific” form of wrestling, a dying art.
Stranded by the carnival in Oregon after an impromptu fight with a local man goes horribly wrong, Pepper and Moira are left with nowhere else to turn. So they link up with a shady promoter who wants Pepper to train Garfield Taft, an African-American wrestler with sights on the heavyweight championship — if someone would fight a black man in the ring.
But at the training camp in Montana, all is not what it seems, and a job taken out of desperation becomes a hornet’s nest of bootlegging, gangsters and other secrets.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about a book about circuses and wrestling, at first. I am not exactly a wrestling fan, and there was a time when circus books became altogether too trendy. I think I read too many of them and got burnt out. But I soon became immersed in this fascinating world. This was a time when wrestling was transitioning from its golden years when matches were always on the level and honest, to a darker time, in which fixed matches yielded big money and it became more of a performance, more of a circus act.
Pepper Van Dean is a wrestler of old school dreams, absurdly naive perhaps for someone with his worldly experience. His naïveté also fit his character of the hopeless romantic. He was the kind of man who would do anything for his dreams, but he also had his own code of honor. The gray areas of integrity. In the end, Pepper Van Dean is kind of like me and ebooks. Hanging on to an old world that is getting crushed by progress. But progress is not always for the best.
I became hooked on this book for the character development. Although it features a medium-sized cast of characters, we are treated to an intimate look at each. This is a character-driven story, as the action takes a back seat to the complex characters we get to know. There is certainly action in the fights and the gangland crime, but it’s not the point of the story in the broader arc.
The prose is spare and clean, no frills, not showing off. Just good, solid, basic writing, but basic in a meaningful way. It wasn’t trying too hard. The words were in service of the story, in service of character.
I enjoyed this book overall. It played a little loose with the history as historical fiction often does, but it was all in the service of a compelling story and interesting characters, so I forgave its continuity issues.
And I must say I took to ebooks more than I would have expected. I decided to purchase a Kindle because I find the light from the phone to be hard on my eyes, so I think a Paperwhite may be easier to read. However, I enjoyed reading ebooks more than I thought I would. I can still lie in bed or curl up in a chair with my phone and read a book – just on my phone. There are still pages to turn, but this time, I turn them with a flick of my thumbs and a quick scan. I am of course distracted by all my social media apps while doing it, but I can pay more attention than I expected I would. It turns out as well that I read ebooks faster than real books, and I appreciate the large print text of most of them. I’ll be checking out more ebooks in the future, for sure.
Just call me a reformed curmudgeon, slowly joining the world of technology. Let’s hope I can change as fast as technology does, but when I get to the latest model, you’ll know it is worth it. I like good-quality technology that lasts, is useful, and serves my needs. Right now, ebooks are where I am at.