In this information age, increasingly physical books are being seen as obsolete, as ebooks and audio books take their place. Yet upon polling my own book riddled family, many of my book reading friends, and looking up the issue online, I find there is strong resistance -if not downright hostility- from many readers to moving on to the more economical digital format. Why is this? If it takes up less space, is cheaper, can be accessed from devices anywhere, and often even has built-in search options for better use, so why do people dislike the digital book so much?
Before I go further I would like to state that I fall in the camp of those who set a high value on physical books. I see the benefits of the digital format and with great reluctance sometimes use it; yet I cling to my papers covered in ink as if they are in some way a part of who I am. What is it about these dog-eared volumes that keeps me and many others so spellbound?
Let us examine the nature of those who hold to the belief that paper is indeed sacred. In our culture today, an avid reader or writer is often considered to be somewhat of a novelty. The general public could care less about that fascinating history book I found at last week’s church garage sale. What separates most determined readers from the overall American populous? I would argue that the most distinctive thing that sets us apart is a deeper love of story. We prize stories, we gather knowledge from them, we collect them, we tell them, and we shape our lives around them. Most humans like stories. Indeed we all are part of a bigger story whether we admit it or not. However, only some humans collect and curate stories -combing them for insight, knowledge, and comfort in life.
So most humans like story, a story is essentially a history, whether it be a past history, one imagined, or one yet to come. What do histories deal with? People, objects, and ideals all shape history. We remember these things through various objects that we collect and curate over time. Our memories are associated with real, physical objects that we can see and touch. Thus, humans like physical objects to remember things by. We collect them, trade them, and hoard them with frightening diligence. We have favorite stories we like to tell about our objects. We grow enraged if we see our objects being taken or violated in some way. We are rather possessive to say the least.
For most avid readers, the physical object associated with a story is most commonly a book. We walk into a room full of these physical books and just by the pervading smell of books we are transported back to the hundreds of times that we were caught up in the written word, seeing our world anew. We pick up a book and feel the cover, whispering of what lies within. For us a leather bound volume brings to mind horizons of worlds ancient and mysterious, full of knowledge and secrets to be discovered. We see the well worn, wrinkled cover of a book read by many a pilgrim before us on the road to enlightenment, and it beckons softly. Or perhaps we espy the paperback with hardly any back left at all, and it seems to beg us to rescue it and bring it new life in our home. The tactile connection with a book that has brought us -or others before us- much joy, sorrow, and thoughts to last a lifetime is not something to be scoffed at.
Contrast this long standing traditional format to the digital book and the difference is stark to say the least. I have never in my years of being alive looked at a computing device and loved it for the rich immersive story it has brought me or promises to bring in the future. I am willing to bet that most book readers would say the same. Perhaps a book writer would feel different about his computer due to the fact that he has used it to create these books. Give that same writer the chance to read someone else’s book that was not written on that computer and I would wager that no such response would even start to emerge from them. I do not project personalities on my computer, except sometimes that of a frustrating goblin who likes to cause me mischief. Where is the cover, so unique and telling for each individual book? In the digital format it is shrunk to a small square gif. on your screen. How very personable it is! How gazing at it brings back memories that have shaped my soul! Admittedly I may be laying the sarcasm on rather thickly, but have you ever had that sort of reaction while browsing the digital “shelves” of your internet library? Has anyone ever had that sort of reaction? If so I would like to meet them. I have never had the opportunity to psycho-analyze someone of that peculiar nature before.
At this point I would like to pause in order to note that my sister is helpfully pointing out to me that I am missing another key factor in the favor of physical books. They make great offensive weapons in case of sibling intrusion. Smacking someone over the head with a book effectively punctuates your point, whereas smacking them with your Ipad will just break the Ipad. Whether that is a valid reason for keeping a physical book handy I will leave up to the reader to judge, but the idea may have some merit.
Moving back to the downfalls of the digital format, one must note that oftentimes it can be painful for one to spend prolonged amount of time reading a digital screen. In addition, you can’t get a digital copy signed by the author, one thing that I aspire to do with most of my books whose authors still live. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I feel that a digital format lacks the fundamental human connection that a physical edition will often engender within a reader.
Thus we get a product that while economically and logically sound in theory, is in actuality not something that holds much appeal to the general book reading audience. Perhaps this will change in the future. However, I for one cannot see that happening any time soon.