I have trouble understanding the panic that much of the culture seems to be experiencing over the rise of e-books at the expense of their dead-tree predecessors. I understand that there are charms and benefits that are unique to the physical codex, and there are few who appreciate those more than I do. But there are times I feel that folks who prefer physical books to their electronic brethren are behaving not as though a particular medium for content delivery is going out of fashion, but that literature itself is doing to disappear, like a species crucial to the ecosystem is about to go suddenly extinct.
Might I suggest a little moderation of this cultural neurosis? Yes, it is true, sales of e-books will likely surpass those of physical paper books any second now, if they haven’t already. Tablets and e-readers are getting cheaper and cheaper, and purchasing the electronic version of a book is therefore becoming a smarter idea overall, in regard to their convenience (great), price (usually lower than new physical books), selection (almost unlimited), and in terms of the raw space they take up (absolutely none). This ship has sailed.
All that said, I’m also totally in favor of the romanticization of physical books. In the various getting-to-know-you exercises I’ve had to endure in several jobs, for example, one almost always gets the “what’s your favorite smell” question, and my answer is almost always “old paperbacks.” The combination of pulp, glue, ink, and dust form a bouquet that takes me back to my first memories of being totally engrossed by a book. Extremely evocative. And of course, I enjoy the book as an object: it’s a memento, a trophy, an award, a physical manifestation of someone else’s Big Thoughts. Of course they’re wonderful.
But let’s get a little perspective. When it comes down to it, regardless of what the latest curmudgeonly missive from a disgruntled (and probably ungodly rich) author and bibliophile might tell you, the primary function of a book is not to induce reveries of nostalgia, or wonderment at a bookbinder’s craftsmanship. It’s to read the words that someone has written. That being the purpose, the e-book is the winner, and to argue otherwise is to, I think, misunderstand what the hell a book is for. I miss the smell, but I am loving the space I get back in my apartment.
For some, this panic has less to do with the object itself, the physical book, than it does with the place from which one purchases said object. I feel some of this anxiety, as the bookstore has long been my favored place of escape. In any city or town (and this was particularly true when I was a touring actor), I would find great relief when I’d discover the nearest bookstore, be it a superchain, local indie, or used book shop.
But this is not necessarily because I wanted to buy books. Sure, I often would, but these places were to me oases more than stores. I never felt like I’d have to worry about being disturbed, or judged for being nerdy, or what have you, while surrounded by Other People’s Big Thoughts. Usually quiet, inviting, comfortable, often serving coffee, bookstores have been a Safe Place for Paul.
So I don’t like the idea of them disappearing. And perhaps they won’t. A long piece in The Atlantic by Ann Patchett tells of her adventures in opening a new independent bookstore in Nashville, and the place goes gangbusters. I think this is supposed to imply that there is a real hunger for this kind of place that has been neglected in the wake of Amazon’s success, but I have to wonder if it has more to do with the fact that she’s a famous person who, because she’s famous, got a ton of free national publicity. I don’t know. I’m glad if there is a glimmer of hope for bookstores, but I’m skeptical at what Patchett’s experience can tell us about the real world.
Even with that skepticism, however, I don’t believe that bookstores or the physical book itself are doomed. Just as there will always be those who prefer vinyl LPs to MP3s — much more so, actually — I think the traditional codex will always have a healthy and active market to satisfy. Despite e-books’ advantages, there’s little that’s wrong with the physical book, and even ravenous e-book consumers can appreciate and enjoy receiving and owning physical books. Just not so damn many, you know?
There’s also longevity to think of. I have little to no confidence that the .AZW files that I’ve “purchased” to read on my Kindle will be accessible in thirty years. Or even ten. What with the rise and fall of various software and hardware platforms and DRM locks, one can never trust that one will still “own” their e-books decades from now. My physical copy of Anathem, then, will remain with me, as will, for example, our Harry Potters, hopefully to remain in the family over the generations. I don’t see myself passing my Kindle Paperwhite to my grandkids. (I’ve posted thoughts about the Paperwhite here and here.)
Even longer-term, there’s simple degradation. Hard drives, CDs, solid state drives, all these media upon which we “permanently” save all this content will fail, eventually. So far, (as best I know) the best way our species has found to preserve the written word is on well-cared-for paper (acid-free being optimal, so I’m told). You want to be able to read something 200 years from now? You better hope someone sacrificed a tree to set it down in print.
And they probably have. And so they probably will. I have a sort of book that I authored (my master’s thesis converted to e-book format), but it will likely never be “in print” if it never gets beyond the hundred or so copies it’s sold so far. But I’d guess that anything that’s gone above that threshold will wind up in physical book form, and will have an audience and a market.
But nothing like what it might have had before the coming of the Age of the Kindle. And that’s okay. As we as a society adopt new technologies and formats, there will always be things we inadvertently lose as a result of all we gain. It’s okay to be sad about those lost things, but one shouldn’t panic. One shouldn’t rend one’s garments as though Culture and Wisdom themselves are being frittered away in a cloud of electrons. If enough people want to buy physical books (or LPs, or typewriters) someone will make them. In the meantime, I’ll keep the ability to have thousands of books at my literal fingertips and trade the smell of pulp, ink, glue, and dust.
There are lots of other smells out there. And more importantly, a hell of a lot more books to read.
Hyrax in the comments gives technical clarification:
Actually, the most enduring method of recording the written word we’ve come up with is microfilm. While acid-free paper will last a long time, as long as the storage conditions are good– not too damp! and then there’s the problem of what the cover and binding are made of– it’s still quite susceptible to fire and water and can be easily torn. And even then it will degrade over time, given long enough. Microfilm is fireproof, waterproof, and should remain in perfect condition for hundreds of years. Of course, there is the teensy downside of needing a microfilm reader to, y’know, read it. And the massive downside that microfilm readers are basically instant headache inducers, although YMMV on that last bit.
I did an internship in a very large research archive for a summer, and I learned a lot about the preservation and fragility of books. I mean, books my father read as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which now rest on my bookshelf, have yellowed and brittle paper, and many of the covers are coming apart. If you take care of them, books can last a good while, but typically what you buy in a bookshop isn’t going to be archival quality.
Also, even though your digital copy of the book might not last the test of time, thanks to cloud storage it will likely still be out there somewhere. Even if a person can lose their individual copy, the knowledge won’t be lost.