Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

I Love To Read. I Love Reading Books.

Those two sentences are both equally true of me. But they don’t mean the same thing. And that is why I do not feel fine if it’s the end of the book as we know it. Whether it is, or isn’t, is a separate issue, but if it is, I’m not fine with that at all.

Kent Anderson is, though. He analogizes the change from physical book to digital reading to the change from long-playing vinyl records to compact discs, and DVDs:

The book as a product is changing, in a way analogous to how music changed from something packaged on a tape, on a record, or on a CD, to a file on your smartphone or iPod. …

… After all, I used to love to go to Raspberry Records where I grew up and flip through the bins in search of great new vinyl. Did music have any more of a “public profile” because of records stores that were tucked away in mini-malls or regular malls? Did a Tower Records stuck in a suburb give music some sort of cultural relevance beyond what the music and artists could?

Music has followed its listeners and moved onto nice consumption devices with significantly more capacity and much better commerce experiences. Now, books are doing the same.

What will give books real-world presence? People reading, people talking about them, people watching movies derived from them, people reading books based on TV shows. It’s the same way the white headphone cord of the iPod gives music a new way to be in the real world.

But will book reading actually suffer? I doubt it. My kids would love to have Kindles so that they could read spontaneously. They get addicted to a series (don’t get me going about “Pretty Little Liars” right now), and once one book is polished off, they want to start the next one. But the scarcity model of book publishing means having to wait days between reading events if ordering a book from an online retailer; calling around town to find a book and often failing; or checking the library which often doesn’t have the latest materials. Does waiting, calling around, or getting frustrated help the reading experience? Not at all.

That’s what having a new book on hand before you finish the one you’re reading is for. Also, I don’t see the analogy to music at all. Music is a listening experience; it doesn’t change if you’re listening to a record or a CD. But reading a book (or a magazine or a newspaper, for that matter) is both visual and tactile. Cover, dust jacket, paper, ink, pages that can be turned; binding; the wonderful and endlessly different aroma of the paper when you lift it to your face and bury your nose in it; the tight feel of a new book, the loose, welcoming feel of an older, well-read book, the look and feel of untrimmed edges…. The way books look on a shelf — or, better yet, on shelves. and shelves. and shelves. … miles of aisles, lined with shelves. … No Kindle or digital reader will ever duplicate this or substitute for it.

This is not to say that there is nothing to be said for electronic books. It does not have to be either/or. Everything in life does not have to be binary. I do, however, agree with Deborah Willis — a published writer and bookseller in British Columbia, Canada — that books are specific things, and there are limits to how far you can stretch the definition of a book:

The bound book is an ancient, heavy, environmentally dubious technology. But it’s also one of the most convenient, tactile, beautiful, and versatile things ever invented. It can contain odes, information, instruction, pornography, and photographs –– sometimes all at once. It can be highly cerebral or totally escapist. It can be kept on a coffee table or tossed in a purse. Its pages can be marked, folded down, and one can flip between them. It can be read on the subway, in a park, or on the beach. In fact, since many people only have time to read while on vacation, and since I’m lucky enough to live near an ocean, I often think the beach should be the ultimate test between the book and the ereader.In this competition, the traditional book wins easily. It can be read in the glare of the sun, dropped in the sand, and you don’t have to worry about it being stolen if you go for a swim.

But it’s not just that ereaders strike me sterile and less convenient than advertised (or that I suspect producing gadgets –– which will break down or quickly become obsolete –– may be worse, environmentally, than printing paper books). There’s also this: when books become computers, they will no longer be books.


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This entry was posted on September 3, 2010 by in Book Activism, Book Biz, Bookstores, Publishing, Reading Life.
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