I’ve spent the better part of my life reading and thinking about books. Lately that thinking and reading has turned more to the contemporary nature of books and reading. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I have mixed feelings about the move to e-books and e-readers (see here, here, here and here for instance). I read quite a bit of those things using my iPad, and I certainly spend hours each day reading online. But I still read printed books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters and so on. And I still order printed textbooks. I try to make us of as much online material as I can to help bring down the costs of materials for my students. I’m not willing to give up my existing library of printed books, and I’m not going to stop buying them either. But I do often find myself wondering if I should by something I want to read in print or e-format. In fact, I went through this indecision this week after reading a review of Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice. I finally went with the kindle edition because I decided it wasn’t a book I wanted on my shelves for future reference. (BTW, I am about 1/2 way through it and highly recommend it–in any format.)
Now a recent article by Tim Parks has me thinking about all this again. Parks reports that when interviewed after winning England’s Costa Prize for Literature, “the distinguished novelist Andrew Miller remarked that while he assumed that soon most popular fiction would be read on-screen, he believed and hoped that literary fiction would continue to be read on paper.” Parks continues presenting the views of other literati and, in fact, his own colleagues:
In his Man Booker Prize acceptance speech last October, Julian Barnes made his own plea for the survival of printed books. Jonathan Franzen has also declared himself of the same faith. At the university where I work, certain professors, old and young, will react with disapproval at the notion that one is reading poetry on a Kindle. It is sacrilege.
OK, I get that some people have very strong aesthetics, but “sacrilege,” really? If these folks were actual purists, they’d be reading and writing only literature that had been written by hand and on parchment. For such folks, shouldn’t the mass production of books be sacrilege as well?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some one who looks forward to or is even predicting the end of printed books as we know them. In fact, I prefer the printed page when reading longer works, and I want to be able to read something straight through if I want. I also want to be able to go to the library or bookstore to browse for things that interest me and to be able to gather more information about stuff, and often what I read online doesn’t give me enough of the information I want.
But what Parks’ purpose in this piece isn’t to advocate for one format over another. Instead, he is more interested in what “these literary men and women are afraid of losing should the paper novel really go into decline?” He’s certain what it’s not–the cover or “the pleasure of running fingers and eyes over quality paper,” since paper quality in mass-produced texts isn’t exactly something to relish. Instead, he thinks it may be that we lament the loss of our old reading habits:
Could it be the fact that the e-book thwarts our ability to find particular lines by remembering their position on the page? Or our love of scribbling comments (of praise and disgust) in the margin? It’s true that on first engagement with the e-book we become aware of all kinds of habits that are no longer possible, skills developed over many years that are no longer relevant. We can’t so easily flick through the pages to see where the present chapter ends, or whether so and so is going to die now or later. In general, the e-book discourages browsing, and though the bar at the bottom of the screen showing the percentage of the book we’ve completed lets us know more or less where we’re up to, we don’t have the reassuring sense of the physical weight of the thing (how proud children are when they get through their first long tome!), nor the computational pleasures of page numbers (Dad, I read 50 pages today).
Parks asks, rather astutely I think, some of the same questions I do about such habits, although he does so more eloquently:
where perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without? Certainly there were those who lamented the loss of calligraphy when the printing press made type impersonal. There were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand.
Surely the purists (or the literati as Parks labels them) must be asking such questions, right? Are those folks most concerned about literature losing its luster? (If so, I hate to break it to them, but literature lost its luster a long time ago. Being “well-read” doesn’t much sway these days–just look at GW Bush. The country elected this non-reader President! The idea of a common literary culture died long before the internet, but it’s long-buried and rotted away now.)
There’s actually a lot to praise about e-books: it’s easy to move around with them; they know no boundaries (which is one of the reasons dictatorships fear them); no one can gather them up and burn them; and they may well make it possible for books to remain forever” in print”; and finally, they’re generally more available and often cost less.
So before we (and I do mean we) lament the loss of the book as we’ve come to know it, let’s remember that our version of the book replaced an earlier version, and that version replaced another and so on. Surely no one is advocating a return to stone tablets, right?