I’m confused about e-books. Not the general idea of them, or even their various formats or platforms; no, the confusing thing about e-books is why so many people scorn them and grieve the decline of paper books.
For every update about the Nook or the Kindle, and for every tech article on the latest e-book features, there seems to be someone lamenting the looming death of the paperback and hardcover. The general argument goes that there’s nothing quite like the feel of a paper book?the tangible pleasure of turning the pages, of weighing that pure, solid comfort in your hand. Paper books, they say, are old friends. Their battered covers and curled pages remind you of camping trips and accidental dunks in the lake. The scribbled margin notes are physical connections to your youthful self.
Well, of course paper books are lovely. I’ve always been a fan. In fact, I treasure my wonderfully musty copy of David Copperfield, complete with an inscription by the original owner. It’s dated December 1899, and I like to imagine the Christmas morning when that book was first unwrapped. Mr. Copperfield is in good company nestled among the classics on my bookshelf, including a tattered old hardcover of Chaucer.
But if much of the magic of reading lies in the paper, the physical entity of a book, why does no one seem to mind the gradual decline of other printed forms? Where are all the elegies for the newsletter and the pamphlet, the newspaper and the magazine? Not that hard-copy newspapers and magazines have gone the way of the dodo yet. There are still plenty of both. The shift has been underway for years, though, with online versions of everything from The New York Times to the Era-Banner.
Plenty of organizations deliver their newsletters electronically now, too, straight to your inbox. And catalogues are close behind (one example is BBC Canada’s gorgeous digital catalogue, complete with page-turning sound effects).
Yet there doesn’t seem to be the same nostalgia for these disappearing paper forms. Not even for that old standard, the paper calendar, now eagerly replaced by digital reminders on laptops and smart phones.
Do we, perhaps, cling to paper books because they’ve been an almost constant presence in recorded history, ?the oldest of all types of publication? and one that dates back ?to the earliest civilizations,? as Britannica Online tells us? Well, maybe. But journals and pamphlets are almost as old; the Acta Diurna, a daily gazette, spread news, horoscopes, and society gossip to Romans as far back as 59 BC.
If the value of paper books lies in the beauty of their historical physical form, perhaps we should start petitioning for copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo transcribed onto clay tablets, papyrus, or wood. The idea might seem frivolous, but 22nd century readers, digital libraries in hand, will probably look back at your hardcover of The DaVinci Code as the charming, outdated equivalent of hefting clay tablets around.
Like any new friendship, e-books will take some getting used to. We need time to discover their quirks and their good qualities as well as their annoying habits. But when it comes to the metaphor of books as old friends, I like to think that covers and endpapers are merely their clothing.
It’s their content?their words?that form their personalities. Their souls, if you will. And new friends or old, isn’t that what really matters?