In the new Literary Review of Canada, there is a review of Andrew Piper’s latest text: Book was There: Reading in Electronic Times. His premise is that when one understands the history of reading one is less liable to be “freaked-out” by its shift to electronic versions, comprehending that “we have been here before” in prior eras’ doomed prophecies about book reading. Yet, while he is not so consistently book-lauding and electronic media loathing as say a writer like Sven Birkerts was in his 1996 text: The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, where Birkerts laid out the “facts” relating to the effect of electronic media, namely that they are likely to “erode language, flatten historical perspective and diminish the private self,” Piper still can’t seem to entirely elevate the e-book over the printed book. Though he aims for impartiality and a balanced approach, he ends by urging us to keep reading real books, claiming that in continuing to digest printed pages, we will be better able to absorb any benefits e-reading can offer us while if we turn from the tangible book we will forget multiple modes of knowing and lose vast realms of beauty.
Lately, I have witnessed people in my family undertaking modes of e-reading and raving about it. I can quite clearly see that it makes reading more efficient, books are much easier to transport and it’s cheaper. However, none of these factors have or will convince me to do any but my most superficial or expedient reading on the screen.
Why? Just a few reasons:
1/Books are sensory. In this age of detachment, we need to feel textures of paper stock, to smell the musk of a page, to heft the spine of a book, how our hands curve around it, how it sits so perfectly in our lap when we are curled up on the couch. Our senses save us from becoming robotic. Books are one way to keep the senses alive.
2./Books are made from trees that breathed and, if they are made from recycled trees, they need not be more damaging to the environment than books made from plastic, derived from oil and all its stinking, eradicating processes, books that need to be recharged with electricity or a battery and require more wasteful cords in our already over-run with cords world.
3/Books can be such perfectly designed aesthetic objects whose gorgeousness is impossible to replicate in electronic form. The book can be passed on to one’s grandchildren if well made. It can be written in on the margins in a more permanent way if so desired. It retains the fingerprint. It valorizes the human quality of vision, the ache to collect, to retain, to gift. When we possess books, we are also possessed by them in a deep, lasting way.
4/Books, when bought, enable us to give back more directly to the writer and publisher. Authors and small presses already make little enough money and with all the free downloading occurring with the e-book it is now nearly impossible to make a living. I know it’s even worse with musicians. And with government cuts. It’s respectful to purchase and cherish books. And when one can lend books, and one can see from across the bus what another person is reading, one enlarges the feeling of community, comradeship. Identities are enhanced. Connections are formed.
Thus, by all means, read your course texts, your Harlequins, your library downloads on e-readers. Travel with them. But don’t let them devour your love of the actual, tangible, sensory, aesthetic, movingly human thing that is the real book.