I recall the first time I feared the death of books - and by books, I refer to stories printed on paper and bound to make tangible literary wonderlands that smell amazingly like stuffy attics or ancient basements when aged appropriately - not PDFs and downloads. I was sitting in a British Literature class during my senior year of college. I had grown fond of my professor, who’s witty comments and stumping questions inspired me to write a complex masterpiece like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which we had been studying. I have yet to write such a masterpiece, but I was inspired. Very inspired.
Professor Kent (name changed to avoid a possible awkward encounter in the future) is the professor you always think you’ll get at some point in college. He was strict, but endearing and encouraging; he proposed profound meanings to dense literature as if it was fun small talk; he wore sweater vests and thin-rimmed glasses on his well-experienced face, yet always managed to stay current. I always pictured him milling about campus with his 20-year-old copy of Heart of Darkness, pondering a secret symbol no literary critic had unearthed before.
So, it came as quite a shock when he arrived to class one morning with a stack of books he was giving away to any of us that wanted them. At first, I was excited - now that I was about to graduate and finally choose my own reading materials once again, here were free classics from the collection of a literary academic to put on the top of my reading list. But then Professor Kent explained why they were up for grabs. You see, he just loved his new Kindle, and he was now getting rid of the extensive library collection he no longer needed. It was the first time I felt out-technologied by a senior citizen. I hated it. Professors like Kent are supposed to be the ones that make you nostalgic for old things like typewriters and land lines, not usher you into an era of digital storage. I thought for sure that my resistance to the e-reader would be supported by all of my classic literature professors. I mean, isn’t the fun of reading old books the ability you have to transport yourself into the past? Into “simpler times,” when books were the movies and letters were the internet? Isn’t it those professors’ jobs to harp on the past? Or am I just getting stuck there myself?
A few months ago I was on a train reading The Help, and the woman next to me leaned over. “You don’t see those so much anymore,” she said with a little grin. I looked back with a confused smile. She nodded to the hard cover book in my hand. As she went back to reading something or other on her Kindle, I looked up at the passengers around me. A sea of e-readers and iPhones bobbed with the movements of the train. It made me sad. Don’t these people miss holding a book?
Yes, I am one of the weirdos that loves the smell of freshly printed novels and weathered library books. And yes, I am one of the weirdos that truly believes you don’t get the same satisfaction when tapping the “turn page” button on a Kindle as when turning a real page in a book. Sometimes I wonder, if these e-readers take over, will there come a day when children won’t know what a paper page is? To them the word “page” will have only a digital connotation. Like our currency no longer references actual gold count, will we loose sight of the objects these digital readers are based off of? Additionally, will anything and everything be published because it will cost nothing to do so? This could be both a good and bad thing, I suppose. Putting that aside, the thing I’d cringe at most would be the day hipsters start collecting books like they collect vinyls today - not to use them, but to simply put them on display as decor or as a “statement” whose meaning they don’t even know.
Alas, I’m getting carried away on my extremist tangent. Of course I understand the pros to Kindles and Nooks. Less paper usage, less physical storage space, extreme portability and incredible accessibility to any book you want. My boyfriend is so in love with his Sony eReader that I can’t help but see the benefits. Having abandoned most TV and computer activities for reading, he’s living proof that e-readers can encourage people to read more often, which is great. Though I write with a great amount of vigor in promotion of hard copy books, I don’t actually oppose these modern devices. I simply fear one of their side effects: decreased human interaction.
I mean, what about the fun of browsing for books in a store? And what about the family outing that often defined my childhood summers: the weekly trip to the library? Does today’s modern family really need less reason to get out and go somewhere together? I think not. And what about the interactions with librarians and store clerks, or even strangers, in a bookstore or library? Do we need less reason to interact with strangers in today’s digital age? I wonder if we’ll soon forget how to interact with people all together, with the ability to buy and do just about anything online. You can even order groceries online! And if you opt to go to the supermarket yourself, the self-checkout counter can assure that you interact with employees as little as possible.
Another day on the train, a woman spotted the title on my yellow hard cover. She leaned over to me and said with a bubbly whisper, “I loved The Help! Isn’t it awesome?” The two of us talked a few minutes about the book before I continued reading with a new excitement. This type of conversation strikes up a lot when I read in public. But I wonder how often it happens to people reading books on e-readers. Aren’t you considered kind of a creep if you get close enough to someone to figure out the book they’re reading on their Kindle or Nook? With no book covers, how many friendly conversations, or better yet, fun debates with strangers are we missing out on? Or maybe some people prefer it that way. Less interruption from their reading at the sacrifice of human interaction. Still, I wonder how many friends and couples in the world have met because one person sparked a conversation about the book the other was reading. How many people wont meet each other while they’re reading on a Kindle?
I hope hard copy books stay in rotation in the years to come, not simply for nostalgia’s sake, but for the small connections that these books bring between us. Sure, people wont stop talking about books simply because they’re in digital formats, but the organic conversations in book stores, libraries, cafes and on public transportation are sure to take a hit. And like I said, we need all the help we can get to stay connected to one another in this digital age. And no, I don’t mean connected on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or whatever the next social networking site will be. I mean connected in the physical world.
With every old book I buy at a used book store, I wonder two things: who had this book before me, and what did they take away from reading it? What I really love is when I find notes in the covers of books when they were first given as gifts, or markings in the margins when a reader before me liked a certain quote. Now that’s a story within a story. And that’s a story no Nook or Kindle can tell.
So yes, enjoy the convenience of your e-reader. But don’t be like my professor, who quickly cast away the historic treasures from his home library for the perks of a simplified and de-cluttered home. Think before you digitize your everything. Clean and convenient is great, but comfortable and personable is better. And, to me at least, there’s nothing more comfortable than a) breaking in the fresh binding on a crisp new book, or b) diving into a well-worn novel with a history of its own written in its dog-eared pages and note-scribbled cover.
*follow-up note: since the original writing of this piece, the author’s boyfriend has lost his eReader, and due to insufficient backing up practices, has for the time being lost his entire library. Take this as you will.
**Retraction: the author was a tad hasty in the above follow-up note, and would like to retract the statement. Please instead regard the following note as it’s replacement: Since the original writing of this piece, the author’s boyfriend has lost his eReader, and though he still has all of his books stored digitally, he doesn’t like reading on computers… He also doesn’t actually own a computer. Take this as you will.