Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Keeping the Book Alive

For some people, e-readers such as Nook, Kindle, or iPad are the Future of Reading. Bibliophilia meets Technophilia. No more heavy books to lug around when/if you travel.  No more need to have a lamp keeping your bedmate awake while you read into the wee hours of the night. The opportunity to shop online for new books from the comfort of apparently a beach chair (usually the commercials show such e-reader users on a beach) rather than have to go out to a bookstore or library. And rather than taking up loads of space with books, you have one single rectangular device which holds all those books in compact neatness for your reading pleasure.

All of these points are valid. In fact, the last reason—space—is why I personally “caved” and got a Kindle Keyboard (sorry, touchscreen smudges would be the bane of my existence) almost a year ago.  My e-reader library is limited to books I want to own, but which I wouldn’t mind having in paperback (a list which is incredibly short in comparison to books I require and demand to be hardcover with gilt binding). Philosophy books, 19th-20th Century “penny dreadfuls,” and Ancient Greek plays are included. 

Yet while e-readers offer a new frontier for book lovers, I understand the pensive suspicion—even outright animosity—a lot of book lovers hold for this “new-fangled technology.”  First, the attitude of the e-reader proponents seems in their commercials to be “we’re better than books” or “this will replace books,” all of which is DOWNRIGHT HERESY! to bibliophiles. Then we have the name “Kindle.” Anyone who weeps themselves into a frothy rage at the mere mention of the name “Savanarola” or other historical accounts of book burnings immediately demands “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU GOING TO KINDLE?!” and then imagining Kindle salespeople taking a lighter and aerosol can to their precious bookshelves. To make things worse, the newest version is called “Kindle FIRE” (never a good word to use around nervous book-lovers. “Nook” is a better name, denoting a sort of curled up fetal position that is a traditional reading pose.

Then there is the entire tactile book experience for which e-readers cannot really compensate:

-     The smell of books, as I mentioned in a previous post, is an alluring factor which even e-reader manufacturers acknowledge and try to replicate with all sorts of “book perfumes.”

-     The very “heft” of books is important, even if it means one can’t carry an entire library to the beach.* How else can you feel the satisfying sensation of turning a leaf of paper, its pulpy texture rubbing under your fingertips as you have finished a page and begin a new one?  Clicking a “next” button or rubbing your finger ("Ew! Smudge! Get it off!  Get it off!") isn’t quite the same.

-     Lastly, the fate of the art of bookmarks hangs in the balance! And I have so many that are just plain gorgeous and asking to be used! Even if you see what percentage of a book you have completed on an e-reader, it cannot compare to the satisfaction of closing a book around a slip of paper, looking at the top of your book and seeing how much further you have delved into its pages.

Actor and author Stephen Fry has said that “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I take one issue with this statement’s validity, and it is this: people don’t have chronic neuroses about going into a cramped e-reader like they are with elevators.** Stairs must always stay “in fashion” because the alternative of a world filled with elevators and demon-possessed down-escalators is a horror beyond imagining.

But as for me, I think that good ol’ fashioned, in-person books will never go completely out of style.  They might become rarer, more expensive, and book dealers will become more elusive.  But perhaps becoming more rare will force book manufacturers to provide better products (not pocket paperbacks which fall apart during the first read), and the dealers of such newly improved tomes will be revered as keepers of a most ancient and wondrous culture of reading.

*The beach, by the way, is a terrible place to take a book if you want to keep it in good shape. Even if you manage not to drop it in the water, you at the very least risk getting sea-spray in it, and most definitely will get sand in between the pages.  Ugh. By all means take your e-reader there.

** By the way, why did a British guy call it an “elevator” and not a “lift”? Am I the only one who wonders about this? 

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