With the end of real books we lose more than sentimental value
Ernest Hemingway said ‘There is no friend as loyal as a book,’ but would he have said the same about the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad? These are just three of the most popular ‘e-readers’ – the relatively new technology which is causing the steady demise of the book.
When the iPod and other MP3 players became the only way to listen to music, I ignored the older generations who bemoaned the loss of LPs, cassettes and CDs, seeing them as luddites, out of touch with new technology and stuck in their antiquated ways. Now however, I fear that I must jump aboard the rickety Luddite bandwagon and join the grumpy old people I lamented as a child for a good moan about the exponential rise in new technology, as this time it is not replacing something which had countless flaws and needed improving. It is replacing something which holds genuine value, sentimental or otherwise, and is infinitely preferable to its digital replacement.
It is possible that Durham University is investing money needlessly in pumping millions of pounds into the new library extension whilst the very objects it will house are slowly being superseded. It seems likely that the libraries of the future will simply be rooms filled with Kindles, or even just websites. We will log on, in our bedrooms, and have ready access to thousands of digital files. This may be very appealing to some (especially scientists and those without any sentimentality or artistic leaning), but not to myself. In my opinion, as Anthony Powell said, ‘Books do furnish a room.’ Kindles, however, do not.
Nonetheless I accept that the book cannot be defended against this technology by logical argument alone. E-readers are very practical: they can be used anywhere and will never suffer the decomposition that is the blight of books. E-books, unlike books, are available whenever they are needed, unrestricted by library opening hours, limited resources or high demand, and there are no return deadlines, library fines, or disappearances. Certainly, I can see why they have gained popularity, and anything which gets people reading must not be dismissed entirely, but they are by no means the perfect replacement for the real thing.
Thus I can, fortunately, easily set aside these technical advantages, because there is something intangible about books which cannot be described satisfactorily but which will always give them the edge over their digital counterparts: something sentimental and gushy which makes them infinitely better than an electronic tablet. This is why it is more than just a shame that the e-reader is asserting its dominance over the established market in literature. It seems awful to me that soon we will no longer have the pleasure of taking a wonderfully old book out of the library, with crinkled pages and hundreds of years of wear and tear; we will no longer be able to take out a book with the relevant chapters highlighted and all the helpful quotes already underlined.
Children learning to read will soon no longer experience the pleasure of learning from a book – one which engages all the senses, unlike a generic and uniform screen. Books are unique and individual, each copy with its history. Books have character; electronic tablets do not, and arguably, distance and isolate readers from their text. However fond people are of chasing the latest model, few have a sentimental attachment to their phone, iPod or computer, and few will have a sentimental attachment to their e-reader.
However, it is not just in abstract concepts that the e-reader is the inferior entity; physical books offer a more engaging reading experience. I do not want the time I can read to be limited by the battery life of my e-reader, but this is an unavoidable flaw in digital reading. Whilst I am reading I don’t want to know the time in New York, or the weather in Paris, or if someone has poked me on Facebook; I don’t want to listen to music or check my emails in a tab next to my book.
Unfortunately, with digitised books these distractions are inevitable. There are countless diversions on the iPad, and these will begin to creep into the Kindle and Nook soon, as the companies behind them try to expand their customer base by adding more functions. Any significant increase in functionality will force the producer to release a new model of their e-reader, pushing people to upgrade or be seen as outdated – the Kindle Touch, released this month, is the most recent example of this phenomenon, one which simply does not exist with real books. It should be only the ideas and concepts within books which become outdated, not the book itself.
But the rise of e-readers is not just bad for the experience of the reader; it is bad for both the economy and for literature in general. The printing industry has been in decline for some years now, and this is not solely due to the global economic downturn. InfoTrends published a report on the state of the publishing and printing industries in 2010, tracking their progress from 2008-2013. They predicted that whilst the general economy begins to recover, the printing industry will continue to decline until at least 2013.
The main reasons for this are ‘new developments that are contributing to the decline of print as a primary medium of communication [like] e-readers and other related technologies [which] are impacting books and periodicals.’ The decline in the printing industry not only damages the worldwide economy further, but as e-readers become more and more prevalent, businesses will be forced to close down, putting even more people out of work.
Another of the great disadvantages in the digitisation of books is the fear of piracy. As soon as music and films became digital, illegal downloading began. The piracy advert tells us that we wouldn’t steal a car, so why would we steal a film, or music? We wouldn’t steal a book from a shop, but I fear that many would steal a digital book from a faceless internet company. This inevitability means that there will be far less money in being an author than there is now. J.K Rowling’s millions may not have been so infinite if she had started writing at the same time as the rise in digital literature. Lack of money in the publishing
I don’t want my children to be embarrassed by their dad who still reads books on the train – the future’s equivalent of the middle-aged man with a portable CD player. I want people still to cherish books as they do now, but not through the medium of an e-reader or a computer screen. Will the Ron Burgundys of the future have to boast about having an abundance of electronic files, instead of ‘many leather-bound books’? I hope not, but I know I will be disappointed. We are powerless to stop the onward march of the digital library, but I’ll take books with all of their flaws any day.
Images from Durham University
Is the book in decline? Will we always be wedded to paper and ink? Does it matter? Comment below or tweet us @PalatiComment to join the debate