Fine, call me a Luddite or, even worse, a late adopter, but I say, Kindle-schmindle, Nook-schnook, give me a good old-fashioned book.
Yes, I have adopted, step by reluctant step, each new advance of the digital realm, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and all the rest, and I've grown used to the virtual media's constant changing despite my constant grousing. Someday, I suppose, I'll own a Kindle, and I'm delighted that one of my books is already an e-book and sells the occasional copy. That books-on-screen will grow evermore popular in days to come seems a sure bet, but...
E-books will never replace books the way CDs replaced LPs and digital cameras replaced film cameras. Why? Because books convey far more to the reader than the words printed their pages. Books serve broad purposes and satisfy broad needs, and basic book technology — cutting and binding sheets of printed paper into six by nine inch rectangles — gets those jobs done better than e-technology ever will.
Paper books have three distinct and major advantages over e-books: permanence, touch, and shelf life.
Permanence. Tell me, from your knowledge of computers, do you believe that in ten years you'll be able to read on the Kindle you're reading on today? I suspect you don't. Experience tells us that in the service of some marvelous new improvement, we'll soon need to buy a Nook Plus, then a Nook Ultra, and a Nook Chrome after that. Ten years in the life of a paper book? The quick blink of an eye! Given reasonable dryness and gentle handling, books can live a century or two or three or more, and even books battered by common wear and tear can be hale and hearty, despite a few wrinkles, at sixty, seventy, and eighty. E-books require the vast technology of electric energy to sustain their existence. Once made, paper books require no energy; their own vitality sustains their longevity. All we need to make a book is paper, ink, and glue; all we need to read a book is daylight. Books give us a medium for human thought as stable, simple, and indestructible as any we possess.
Touch. Books live in human dwellings as familiar objects; they've done so for centuries. We know the books piled helter-skelter on our shelves as we know the pots and pans on our stovetops, the broom in a cupboard by the sink, a snapshot stuck in the corner of a mirror. E-books have an anonymous, plastic perfection; books live with us as quirky little household gods, each with its own story to tell, each with its history of living with us. This book has a ring on the cover from a ill-placed wine glass, that book my Mom gave me when I went off to college, there's the book that inspired me to study guitar. We get something from the very feel of a book, its chunky heft in our hands, its firm cover and flexible pages. The time-tested plainness of books reassures us; their neat shapes and well-ordered layouts call to us with a modest self-confidence: "Open me, read me, you'll be glad you did. "
Shelf life. Of my three objections to e-books, this is the most important. A brand new Nook or Kindle may hold five hundred or five thousand books, and by tapping here and there on the screen you may read any one you wish. But you can't browse a Nook as you can browse a bookshelf!
I need look no further than the shelves above my desk to make my point. There's David Copperfield, the Bantam paperback I read at my dying mother's bedside; I open a page at random:
"Oh, my lungs and liver," cried the old man, "no! Oh, my eyes, no! Eighteenpence. Goroo!"
Every time he uttered this ejaculation, his eyes seemed to be in danger of starting out; and every sentence he spoke he delivered in a sort of tune, always exactly the same, and more like a gust of wind which begins low, mounts up high, and falls again…
—and beside David Miss Lonelyhearts:
As soon as she had gobbled up her salad, he brought her a large red apple. She ate the fruit more slowly, nibbling daintily, her smallest finger curled away from the rest of her hand. When she finished it, she went back to the living room and Homer followed her.
—and beside Miss Lonelyhearts two copies of Plato's Republic, one in Greek from senior year in high school, every page with my scribbled notes, the other in English:
And is there anything more akin to wisdom than truth?
How can there be?
Can the same nature be a lover of wisdom and a lover of falsehood?
—and beside that You Only Live Twice, then Agee on Film, Peter Pan and Wendy, The Fixer, a few volumes of Wittgenstein (my wife Ellen majored in philosophy) The Groucho Letters, An American Tragedy, The Twelve Caesars, Nine Stories, and on it goes.
I can stand in front of the bookshelf and take in all the books at once. I can put down my coffee and pick up this book or that according to momentary whim. I can remember, roughly, when each book came into my life; I can remember something, if not much, that each book taught me. I love the pebbled red cover of the King James Bible, the yellow cartoon cover of You Can Do It, Charlie Brown, the impressive bulk of Ellen's Larousse Universel.
I try to give some order to my bookshelves, grouping Dreiser front and center, film books on the right, art books on a wide lower shelf, but the helter-skelter collection I end up with is not a failure but an invaluable asset that no Nook or Kindle can duplicate. Where is the algorithm that would place a beautifully illustrated French paperback, Carcassonne, by Pierre Embry, published by La France Illustrée in 1951, beside a 1971 Dramatists Play Service acting edition of The Young and the Fair by N. Richard Nash? Only Ellen and I, moved by whim, purpose, and odd twists of fate, could put together such a nutty collection. I suppose my little library could be stuffed into a Nook, but to what end? I'd only lose my tactile connection to these few hundred old comrades, and they'd lose their tactile connection to me and to each other.
Books are more than digits floating in a cloud. Books are aware and active spirits that can influence, often profoundly, actions in the world thousands of years after their birth. These spirits can't move about or scratch their noses, blossom in the spring or shed their leaves in the fall. Yet we readers embrace books as lifelong friends, friends with whom we laugh and cry, friends from whom we learn.
Books help us, books entertain us, books guide us, books challenge us. Books remind us of our youth and prepare us for old age. Books are loyal. They love being read, but they sleep standing up on hard wooden shelves day after day for years, never stirring, never complaining, never asking to be watered or fed.
Then one day a curious soul happens by and as she opens this book and that, the books wake up, yawn, stretch, and tumble out from between their covers. Once again Shakespeare sits at his desk, his quill pen racing; Hamlet, MacBeth, and Falstaff peer over his shoulder. Abe Lincoln talks strategy with General Grant by the fire, Jane Eyre talks girl talk with Eugenie Grandet. Machiavelli and Mencken, Huck and Jim, Woody Allen and Raymond Chandler — writers and characters, characters and writer crowd a book-filled room, all gesturing and joking, all telling stories nonstop to me and to each other.
Have I let my imagination run away with me? Perhaps, yet a good library gathers book spirits into a organism that floats in a house like a seaweed colony floating in the Sargasso Sea, like a coral reef of a million cells, some new born, some hoary with age. Each book pulses on its own unique wavelength, sending its signal tirelessly to the universe, happy to be heard, but if not, going on nevertheless, trying its best to convey to us and to future generations the seething, ceaseless energy of ongoing life.