Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Books

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.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 17th 2012, 5:50 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Most of the books I read I will never read again, let alone leave on a shelf just to leaf through. For those, ebooks are great. For the others, there's no law saying you can't buy a paper book just because you own an ereader - and nothing is better for commuting and reading on the train. No way can I take the complete Father Brown to work every day.
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 9:07 AM
Comment by: anne T. (Albert Lea, MN)
I couldn't have said it better, I agree totally with Mr Lydon.
Although there may be activities that are more tactilely pleasing than caressing the pages of an 1879 Bible or smoothing the turned down pages of a college reference book . . .there can't be too many of them.
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
I love books. I like my kindle. Funny thing is, neither is perfect or fits all needs. Instead of complaining about one or the other why not accept that their both here and can be useful and fun...if given the chance. The joy in a story, or the learning from what a master has written, does not depend upon the makeup of the page, but in the mind of the reader.

I find opinions like this one, as expressed by Mr. Lydon, to be distasteful, and I am disapointed to find it here, in a digital medium that he proclaims to be inferior to traditionally printed and bound reading material.

Come on, give us a break and bring back articles about writing and reading and words, not drivel like this.
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
There will be strong opinions on this one!
I tend to agree with Mike, above, but due to my respect for the wisdom of the aged mind, and while I fully allow the freedon of expression, and the duplicity of inconsistency, to my own personal point of view, Lydon's opinion matters not one whit to me. He's simply wrong!
The functionality of my Kindle allows me to have read almost all the of the historical crime novels of Nathan Heller in the matter of a few months which would have never been possible lugging around all 20 or so novels with me for all those spare moments I found in my busy life, otherwise.
But I would attempt to express my personal opinion in a more kindly manner. I love books, too, but for me, in our highly mobile society, you can't beat the Kindle!
There is a reason for the astounding success of Amazon's top retail item (the Kindle) it works for people!
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 9:01 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I am amazed that Mike can be so insulting. I really like this article and the beautifully ariculated prose. I totally agree with the sentiments. I have around 2000 books and am having to find evermore space for them but I would never relinquish even one. I also have a kindle and see it's merits. One of my sons does too!! He has 'requisitioned'it. I haven't seen it for a long, long while and.......I don't miss it!
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 11:22 PM
Comment by: ClaireK (Raleigh, NC)
I can't put my coffee cup on my kindle.....
Wednesday April 18th 2012, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Sipora C. (Louisburg, KS)
Books are heavy, they take up space, they need dusting, and after a while, they smell. Give me my Kindle!

Even better, e-readers may revolutionize how writers get paid. Except for a very lucky few, writers have been held hostage to the expenses involved in paper and ink. With the advent of the e-reader, it costs virtually nothing to "print" a book - and if run-of-the-mill writers are smart, they will figure out how to make a real living.
Wednesday April 18th 2012, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
To: Ferial, and anyone else that thinks I was insulting.

From the article: "Books are aware and active spirits ...". Now, if you believe that statement, then I can see why you might also believe my comment about the article being "drivel" as insulting. A better and more realistice belief to hold would be that this article was written and published for the sole purpose of stirring the hackneyed plot of e-reader vs printed book. It is distasteful and insulting to thinking people to have this article on this website.

Might I suggest a less subjective topic concerning digital reading? Digital independent publishing could engender great series of articles here. Even Mr. Lydon, who detests digital books, has published digitally and might have some valuable input on the process and outcome. The topic has even reached the US Department of Justice which has filed suits against traditional and digital publishers (including Simon and Schuster, Penguin, Apple, and others) for price fixing.

If you were offended, I'm sorry, but I'll stand by my comments in their full context.
Wednesday April 18th 2012, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To Claire K:
True enough, but you can't balance your coffee cup on your belly as you lazily read in bed with your feet up in the air, either!
Wednesday April 18th 2012, 4:09 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wow! My latest on books and e books stirred some strong reactions!!

To all who use and love their Kindles, more power to you! Close friends of mine who spend months each year in the French countryside love stocking up their Kindles with books in English. E-book advantages for commuters and travellers are obvious.

As I see it, my big point was that e-books will not replace paper books as digital music and photography have replaced records and film because paper books have major advantages that will keep them alive.

I do think that books are "aware and active spirits." Book life depends, of course, on the skill, vision, and vitality of the writing, but for me The Iliad, Don Quixote, Great Expectations are alive.

Is the life in the words, in the author? I'm not sure, but good books are not inanimate objects. Yes, an e book of Great Expectations is likewise alive, but I from long association, connect book life more to paper and pages and battered covers and bookshelves and stacks of favorites on my desk and bedside table, than I do to pixels floating in cyberspace.
Thursday April 19th 2012, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Aha...... The late esteemed Sir Winston said that we are divided by a common language, Mike. That may be very true; drivel must have far stronger connotations in this English back-of-the-woods than Stateside
Thursday April 19th 2012, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Stale as 'pot versus booze'and 'Mac versus PC' and just as foolish. Personal taste is personal, by definition. Folks with personal libraries full of books that haven't read but display then like literary trophies, will have vastly different tastes and reading habits and desires than folks who only read a book once and then discard it.

Mike seems to be clutching to his buggywhip, fearful of letting go.

Being 61 years old myself, at some point the technology can be daunting and sometimes distasteful. For now, I like hard and soft and believe both will be around well into the future. Reading will continue to be on the incline thanks to both.
Thursday April 19th 2012, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
What about the demise of the card catalog? The information in that arcane storage medium has been almost entirely replaced in the process of digital modernization.
In the same manner, books may soon follow a similar fate.
To me, it is the concepts and information contained in the sequence of words that provides readers with the value they seek in reading.
The medium, whether a book or some electronic display, is only the agent through which we gain new knowledge or enjoyment that we seek through reading.
This entire discussion is beginning to seem a bit specious.
Friday April 20th 2012, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Jeanne G. (Woodstock, IL)
A beautiful article: FINALLY I understand why I have all these books scattered about my home, and why I can't seem to get rid of them. Thank you.
Friday April 20th 2012, 11:06 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I love a strongly stated case, awash with passion, whether I nod agreement or shake my head in vehement denial. And I did both.

I think that books in digital form will almost completely replace paper books, Michael. In my opinion, they will follow the LP model very closely, and CDs will too for that matter, since, lacking any sonic distinction, they will quickly disappear. While many books will keep their treasured places in personal libraries, most will end up in incinerators soon enough, providing energy I hope. Museums and national libraries have limited capacity.

I believe that you are quite wrong about permanence. Books you download to digital devices don't have to stay there. You can download them again. And many of the devices use Flash memory which does not require energy to maintain stored files. The Cloud, in fact has every chance of maintaining the digital archive of our lives, including books, in ways that are distributed and secure over the long run, in simple, standard file formats that may change but will remain convertible.

I love what you say so beautifully about bookshelves. Book lovers gravitate to the shelves of a new friend or lover to find out who they are and how they think. And the sweet feeling of hanging around your own shelves only to find a book you had loved and forgotten, or didn't even know that you had. For all of this, however, as table tops and walls become screens, there will be no reason not to stack and scatter images of books for us to enjoy, move around and even open. The means will change but the metaphors remain.

I can well see the day, perhaps when we are very old or gone, that the babies of today will shed a tear or two as they recall the time that Pride and Prejudice Kindled their love of books.
Saturday April 21st 2012, 10:28 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Depending on the context, I like to use both mediums, and also audio. I read lots of books on my Kindle for iPad, but I was not offended by the thoughts expressed in this post. Some of my best friends are books, and the more tangible, the better.

Sometimes when I am reading a traditional book, after having spent time with an ebook, I gear up mentally to touch the word, to check the electronic gloss. That cracks me up. Does it happen to anyone else?

I posted this related poem months ago, to foster discussion or debate in older students, at my edublog Vocabulogic:

The Age of Books

Crated, carted, cast aside,
printed works have liquefied
in shocking bouts of bookicide.

The printing press is done, perhaps,
and publishers have (boom!) collapsed
to clicky gadgets, gizmos, apps.

Digital books are all the rage,
touchless paper, turnless page.

Stores are only cyber spaces,
cold, electric, faceless places.

Bookshops closed, bookshelves cleared,
paperbacks have disappeared.

The age of print has culminated,
finished, finis, terminated.

Susan Ebbers
Monday April 23rd 2012, 11:41 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
A cyber book will probably never have to suffer Fahrenheit 451
But my catch 22 will always have a binding and cover.
Back to my Maltese Falcon
Wait! Is that a phone box? No, but a Tardis!

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