I have a friend intent on arming himself and defending the public library from looters, if it comes to that (four words: A Canticle for Leibowitz), and I know that if we lived in the same place in a collapse situation I’d be right there beside him. I love books. I think they’re important.
I tend toward ludditery. Sometimes on principle, sometimes because I think simplicity tends to offer the best solution to most problems. Why the fuck do I need an electric coffee grinder? It costs me money in electricity to run (and is useless when the damn power goes out), has a motor I can’t repair myself, looks like some kind of elephant space dildo, and sounds like a trip to the dentist. I can grind my coffee by hand almost as quickly in a pretty little antique wooden grinder that I know how to fix and that cost me 2 euros at the flea market. For example.
But I also love technology. I am enthralled and fascinated by the advances of science. While I am careful to consider the repercussions of technological advancements as each wave rolls in, I don’t believe that technology itself is evil or wrong. It can go horribly wrong even when human intentions are so honorably right, but more often than not it seems that the majority of the “this tech is evil” cries are really just cries of “things are changing too fast and I don’t like it wah wah wah the good old days etc.” For example, when people get all “smart phones dumb people no one reads books on the train anymore we’re not social anymore the world is ending” I pretty much think this.
Which brings me to e-reading. People love to rail on ereading and love on books. Or proclaim the book dead and the ebook its predecessor. But it isn’t that simple. They are both wonderful, both terrible, both important. We don’t need to hate one and love the other. There is room in the world for both. There should be room in the world for both.
I have a fetishistic relationship with paper books. I like the way that they look and feel. I like the experience of flipping through pages, letting one fall open at random, and reading what I find there. I like underlining and making notes in the margins. I am one of those weirdos who goes on about how books just smell so good.
Books make beautiful decorations. When they are visible in your home, they will start conversations that will enrich your mind and your friendships.
I especially like the way that books, when I am finished with them, are potentially capable of bio-degrading or becoming a fire starter in my wood stove. Unlike the plastic and metal parts of my computer/phone/Kindle/whatever. When the world goes to shit those aren’t going to be useful at all. Of course, industry can rain on just about any parade, and the book printing and binding industries are using nasty chemicals (that tend to end up floating around in all sorts of places where they shouldn’t be).
Excepting that last thought, these are fun reasons to like books, but they also veer into slightly silly. There are important reasons too.
As Mira Grant said in an interview: “I grew up below the poverty line, and the ability of a single book to enrich a community is hard for me to over-state. Something someone bought new would go to the used bookstore to the library book sale to the flea market to the dumpster, and there would be someone waiting to read it every step along the way. It is hugely important to me that I keep releasing books back into the world through this channel.”
Grant’s argument is the quintessential explanation of Why Paper Books Are Important. Books can be educational, mind-expanding revolutions. The more people who have access to them, the better. While in some ways digitization is making reading more accessible for some, it simultaneously makes it less accessible for others. Particularly poor others, people who lack resources in general, in short: exactly the sort of people who would benefit most from access to books.
The physicality of a book is important in allowing the chain that Grant describes to exist. No one will ever be able to dumpster dive an ebook. (OK, you could dumpster dive computer bits with ebooks on them, but then you’d have to have the resources to use those computer bits to get at the ebooks and read them. That could be a big hurdle even for the most resourceful diver.) Library book sales, flea markets, and spontaneous loans from your friends are all out of the picture when it comes to ebooks. Libraries are still able to lend ebooks, but consumers cannot resell them or buy them used. Pirates can download them, which I suppose says something about the tenacity of shoplifters.
That makes books important, but it doesn’t make ereading bad or irrelevant.
I shied away from ereading for a long time. Too many screens in my life already, I’d think. I love my paper too much, the bits of my brain still tarzaning on about CHANGE BAD would argue. But books are about the words, about the sentences, about the stories that all those little symbols create. Those words and those stories could be written on the wall by an alien in Area X, scribbled on a piece of paper by Kafka, or looking at me from a screen, and it would not change their worth or their meaning. Reading a book on a screen does not cheapen the words being read. It may change the physical experience—the way you hold your hand, the movement needed to turn a page, the weight of the object you are reading from—but it does not change the experience those words are capable of providing.
Time has erased the first step toward a love for ereading from my mind. It must have happened around the same time that I purchased my first smart phone. Was it when I realized that I could download an ereading app for free? (My first try was Calibre, which didn’t work with my phone, then Aldiko which I liked enough to pay for the premium version.) When I realized that with books on my phone I would never be caught without something to read again? When I became drunk with the possibility of having 100 books with me always? When I realized I could read late into the night on my phone without a light that would disturb the sleep of my partner and child? (No, I don’t want a fucking Kindle. The whole point is that I love not having to carry around an extra device or object in order to read. The text on my phone screen does not hurt my eyes thankyouverymuch and if it did I could just make it bigger so just stop looking at me like that when you see me reading a book on my phone.) When I started to take advantage of the easy accessibility of my notes and highlights in an eread book?
I love ereading, and I love paper books. Ereading offers me accessibility on a level physical books cannot (not only because I can carry more of them, but as an English-speaker who lives in Germany, they also allow me a higher level of access—these are some of the positive sides of the ereading access issue), while my paper books offer a physical experience that pleasantly partners other reading habits. I love when friends come over, take a look at my shelves, and start to ask questions. I love when I can lend someone a paper book I have loved and watch as the paper absorbs more and more bookish adoration. Having access to both digital and physical reading has changed my book buying habits. I borrow more (ebooks) and make buying decisions based on beauty (paper books).
At the end of the day, they’re both fucked
Being obsessed with post-apocalyptic scenarios, I often wonder what would happen to the printed word in a post-apocalyptic event. I can’t imagine that mass-market printing would continue in any form after a big economic crash or environmental disaster. (Though I bet there would be tiny pockets of steam punks running big bulky presses and laughing at the rest of the world from beneath their monocles and well-brushed top hats.) I can imagine enormous public libraries whose books are painstakingly re-copied onto paper handmade from the contents of this century’s trash bins. I can imagine traveling tellers and librarians dragging little carts across the country and evenings spent listening instead of reading. I can imagine printing very small runs on hand-run presses, and I can imagine the crafts of handwriting and oral storytelling becoming highly valued art forms. And though the thought of having to become more social than I currently am in order to continue my trade, a world with neither Kindles or mass-produced books doesn’t sound all that bad either. Because no matter what the medium, we will always have stories.