Papyrus, Paper, Pixel

ereaderFor Christmas, did Santa Claus tiptoe quietly across your hearth with the source of your heart’s greatest delight? I’ve spent Christmas deep down in Dixie, in Georgia, where I sit now, writing to the sound of a cold wind late at night. Here is what Santa Claus brought me for Christmas. Really. No, really.

  • a box of treats for my computer mouse
  • a blanket to put over my car, which is old and complains of the cold
  • X-ray glasses that let you see through people’s clothing (I will only use these in an emergency)
  • anti-itch powder for something I don’t want to talk about
  • a bottle of whiskey, but it was half drunk, so I don’t know if Santa meant to leave that

But he didn’t bring me an e-reader. How am I supposed to read Great Expectations? During this trip south, I stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I examined the e-reader of a friend’s son, I got an email from a friend talking about her e-reader, I watched my sister-in-law reading hers, and another friend at a party talked about how she had learned to love her e-reader. All within one week.

The use of this technology is spreading quickly. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, by November of 2012, 33% of Americans owned some kind of e-reader. The year before, it was 18%. The same survey also says that the percentage of those who read a printed book in the past year went down.

Book lovers like me bemoan this trend, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons. The bad reasons to resist reading on an e-reader really come down to being uncomfortable with change. In fact, this technology has some fantastic advantages over paper books. For a person of my age, who begins to wonder why the print in most books has to be so goddamn small, you merely click and it gets bigger. As big as you want.

It can also be possible with an e-reader to have instant access to the definition of a word merely by touching it. The ability to learn new words so easily actually increases the potential for literacy. One could also shift to an encyclopedia for additional information on the topic being read about. Your book takes place in Bodrum, Turkey? You can quickly find out that the city held one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, then go back to reading.

There are other advantages to e-readers. They can have built-in lights, making it possible to read at night, they are light and easy to hold, as opposed to Les Miserables or War and Peace, they can contain hundreds of books in the palm of your hand, and the the book never closes itself while you are trying to read it, as paper books sometimes will. And there are still other advantages, such as the ease of acquiring a book by wifi.

So why don’t we rush out and buy this amazing device? In part, for the bad reasons of simply resisting what is new. At the same time, there are also good reasons to love the paper forms of books. The interaction with an e-reader will be very different, as one maneuvers through “pages” that can never be seen except one at a time, as opposed to flipping around in a paper book.

Our emotional attachment to paper books really comes from transferring to them the pleasure derived from books we’ve read. Can’t that happen with an e-reader? Probably, yet the e-reader will not only represent the book you loved, but the book you hated. You can’t look at them as separate physical entities and pick up the one you loved. You can never see that book on the shelf and remember that you loved it, as it will only be one of the potential choices in the reader. The book we loved will really exist only in our head.

But we will get used to the change, or more correctly, we will raise generations who will not change at all, as they will never experience paper books. To most people in the future, the old paper books will seem like a strange thing to have been in love with. After all, is a book simply a physical object? Isn’t a book a set of ideas, regardless of how they are transmitted? Cicero loved books as much as anyone ever did, but every book he read was on a papyrus roll.

Still, if you love books, walking through a bookstore is an experience that the computer, however magical it continues to be, will never come close to. In a bookstore, we are physically surrounded, literally, by ideas. It is partly an experience of the body. There are shapes, colors, fonts, graphic styles, images—so that we might stop and briefly examine a new Turkish novel, a cookbook of African recipes, a biography of Robert E. Lee, a book with photographs of treehouses, and a book on learning new software.

If you respond that you can do all of that on your computer screen, then you have no idea what I’m talking about. Replacing paper books with e-books will probably bring more advantages than disadvantages as far as individual books are concerned. But the fact that e-books are going to destroy bookstores (already underway)—this is a cultural tragedy. I’m glad I live in a time when bookstores still exist.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Talks

2 responses to “Papyrus, Paper, Pixel

  1. As Newsweek announces its last print copy, as the Harrisburg Patriot goes to a 3 day print edition and new online presence, as students rent online versions of textbooks rendering page specific assignments impossible, as Amazon tries to guess what book I should read next and deliver it instantly, I found a copy of Camus’ “The Stranger” that belonged to a former wife and pressed between pages 72 and 73 was the small rose I also gave her in 1982. Tried that with an ebook.

  2. I loved your article David and I too still like going to book stores. We have no book stores near us but we do have libraries and that is almost the same thing – just no coffee shop. Jimmie

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