The printed word

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday discussing Google’s ambitious book scanning project. The author outlined the project and some of the concerns involved, particularly surrounding copyright, and I highly recommend reading it.

For the record, I’m a supporter–I think it would be superb to have a fully searchable index of as many books as possible, though I do think some sort of method to acknowledge copyright holders needs to be in place. The snippet method used now works reasonably well, in that you can see if the book is relevant to your needs and order it through the library or your local independent bookstore. But I would also be willing to pay a subscription fee to have access to full texts online for research purposes–especially when in the heat of a project, instant gratification is vital.

But what the article got me thinking about is the physicality of a book. A few years ago publishers were going batty for the ebook trend, suggesting that printed books would be replaced by electronic text. This seems to be a commonly held idea–every futuristic novel has people reading from handheld devices, scrolling books across ceilings, reading on their computers, and every permutation thereof, with nary a printed book to be seen.

But I disagree. I don’t think the printed book will ever be fully replaced by its electronic cousin, though I suspect ebooks will gain an important place in the literary pantheon. The printed book will always be there.

Why?

Because of the sheer joy of physically holding a book. I think most of us can remember our first books as children, the tactile sense of the pages under our hands, working out the words and the language and graduating to ever thicker, more complex reading. And there are the smells of books, the different scent that each book on the shelf has. That magical scent that fills the nostrils when you step into a used bookstore, and the crisp fresh scent that emerges when you open a brand new book. My copy of The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts smells like Mexican food, because I accidentally dropped an enchilada on page 124. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, on the other hand, smells like fresh summer hay, due to my habit of using blades of grass for bookmarks when I was a wee lass. The Shape of Water smells like plumeria, because I read it on the beach on Kauai. Other books in the library have mutilated covers from assiduous cockatiels and determined kittens. Before I replaced it, my copy of My Family and Other Animals had no cover at all, thanks for a curious pony. My books travel with me in a substantial heavy bulk–I cannot imagine having a stack of memory cards where my books used to be. The last time I flew, I exceeded the weight allowance for my baggage because it was filled with books (for a weeklong trip, too–with pairs of underwear and a spare shirt stuffed in the sides of my luggage).

I can remember the first place in which I read all of my books, what I thought about them at the time, and I can trace the paths of my reading interests. For example, reading In a Sunburned Country, I learned about stromatolites, archaic life forms that existed when the earth was young. Stromatolites are living rocks, colonized by cyanobacteria. I was intrigued by Bryson’s brief discussion of them, and found myself reading Bully for Brontosaurus to learn more about natural history in general. But I was still intrigued by Australia’s primitive life forms, so I turned to Platypus to learn more about that remarkable animal. And from Platypus…and so forth.

The physical sense of holding a book is exciting, to put it simply. Opening a new book fills me with excitement about what might be inside. Browsing the library or the bookstore, I feel ready to plunge into a multitude of new worlds. Books are short and oversized, colourful and dour, thick and thin. And every one holds promise.

Could you replace that with a screen? I think not.

The screen also holds additional difficulties for me, and many other readers, I suspect. It’s hard to read. Oh yes, a page here and there, but to imagine reading a whole book on the screen causes my eyes to twinge. We spend entirely too much time around screened objects as it is. (Case in point–though I am preparing to go to work, it is sunny and warm outside. If I was in my right mind I’d be sitting on the roof with a cup of tea and the newspaper, instead of inside entertaining you lot.) I think more and more of us are spending our times gazing into screens instead of interacting, and it saddens me.

Books allow us to explore the world from an armchair, but they also allow us to make connections with other people. Sitting at the coffeehouse with a chai by my side and a book in hand is a splendid thing–especially when I notice someone at the table next to me reading the same book, and strike up a conversation about it. Perhaps in coming years our comfort levels will change, but I can’t imagine interrupting someone as ou peers at a screen and saying “hey, is that such and such that you’re reading? That’s great!” And screens don’t afford the found treasures that library books do–I’ve found old telegrams, grocery lists, and other errata from people’s lives within the pages of borrowed books. A small spark of connection with someone I don’t know.

No, I suspect that digitized books will rise, and become more widely available, and also that I myself will use them, though primarily for research. But the printed word in a physical state will always be here too, because we are not creatures of the mind alone. And because if you accidentally drop your expensive laptop in the water at the beach, you’d be pissed.

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