Why An E-Book Is Not a Book
February 18, 2011 § 3 Comments
A specter is haunting the literary marketplace, the specter of a purely digital world. It is obvious that the new reading technology is part of a larger cultural shift of information to web-based and digital formats. But the e-book evangelists go too far in smugly declaring that the end of the printed book is nigh and anyone failing to recognize this is benighted, foolish, or willful as a child who won’t eat his peas.
Last June, at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, an academic named Alex Halavais proclaimed that the era of the personal library was over. He proceeded to recount in graphic detail the thrill he got in slicing apart books that comprised his personal collection as he painstakingly held each page to his scanner.
We all know that E-readers have been selling well, and no one can dispute the advantages of traveling for business or pleasure with a reading device fitting trimly in your bag or brief case rather than bulky old hunks of paper and glue. Anyone with macular degeneration or impaired vision can create the equivalent of a large-print book. And some people love the advantage of being able to look up a word on the same device that gives them their text.
But, the digital files that contain the words of creative works should not be confused with the printed objects we call books. A book is an artifact with a personality, a physical reflection of its own moment in history. The cover art is an advertisement, and yet, it tells us how the publisher defines it, and for whom the book is intended. The printed book has a look and feel that gives us a sense of the historical period in which it was manufactured. For example, I recently came across a copy of the Grove edition of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, published in 1961, just a few years after the first production of the play at the Arts Theater in Cambridge. The cover art, the paper, the photographs of the original production, give the reader a sense of the social milieu that produced this play.
My books are like friends that I can visit any time. I can recall where I bought the book, or who sent it to me, and this memory is part of the enjoyment I take in the physical object. The variety of trim sizes, illustrations, paper and ink, add a dimension to the words that e-text in a plastic rectangle will never capture. A book requires no power source to read, emits no electromagnetism, does not leave behind generations of toxic junk, and is most-often recycled by readers without prompting.
Some of my books are inscribed by authors or friends or contain notes I have written in the margins. In the case of used books, the notes one finds on the flyleaf or newspaper clippings tucked into the middle may be alternately creepy or engaging, but they give the reader a connection with the history of the work.
As to the survival of books, the e-mail newsletter Shelf-Awareness reports that Jack McKeown, director of new business development for Verso Digital has updated his survey-supported study of reader attitudes published last year and finds that “e-reader owners are buying as nearly as many print books as e-books.” And, according to an article by Lisa Foderaro published in the New York Times last October, “…a generation of college students weaned on technology appears to be holding fast to traditional textbooks.” The provost and professor James J. O’Donnell wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last June that ereaders have not won him over because “I need particular books, and I need to have several of them open at the same time (with a specialized reference shelf handy).”
So, books are not fading away any time soon.
Amazon’s surprise purging of the digital files of George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, from Kindles in July of 2009, underlines the insecurity of digital ownership. A story run by NPR last December points out that, “most e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.” The vendor of e-books has the ability to store information not only about what texts you have purchased, how fast or slow you are reading them, how often you open the file, but even your physical whereabouts. At a time when the relationship between large corporations and government has compromised the rights of individuals this ought to give one pause. And publishers ought to worry as well. Although Amazon wishes to do away with print, the problem of online piracy is only just beginning.
Finally, the e-reading trend is not only part of the larger digital revolution, but a chapter in the ongoing story of the internet’s destruction of American brick-and-mortar retail. Empty storefronts are coming to a theater near you.