“Books Break the Shackles of Time, Proof that Humans Can Work Magic”: Technology and the Future of Books
There's a reason I write reviews about movies and television and not about gadgets, despite working in computers for all those years. It's not just that I'm not a gadget head, one of those strange individuals purchasing cutting edge devices and then selling them on eBay three months later in order to partially fund another cocaine infusion of newness. It's that I have an active psychological complex regarding new devices.
The cutting edge represents a terrible intersection of fragility and cost. If I acquire some new bit of technology, I behold it in mortal terror. Not because I'm intimidated by new interfaces or feel a need to hitch my suspenders up at things that are too newfangled, but because my subconscious is utterly convinced that the fragility of an object is directly proportional to its newness. When I bought a car for the first time, taking it over twenty miles per hour made me nervous for weeks. If I purchased an iPad, I would probably need to lock it in a padded drawer for a year, only sneaking glances at it now and then.
It's not simply a function of cost. If given the choice between buying something for $200 that is brand new, versus paying $200 for the exact same item that's been used for a year, my completely broken subconscious would have to be wrestled down from buying the used device. Yes, my subconscious has determined that devices that aren't new are somehow less vulnerable, that instead of being subjected to wear and tear, they instead somehow level up as they're used. A brand new iPod is a first level fighter, with five hit points, a dagger and leather armor, pissing itself in abject fear of being snapped in half by the gentlest touch. An iPod with five good years of use is a seventeenth level dual-wielding god of death in full plate +5, you can pound nails with the LCD screen.
I had an iPod Nano for six years. Loved the thing, but the battery had deteriorated to only a few hours of life. So when I got a recall notice that the batteries might spontaneously combust, I sent it back in. The thing I received back was a much newer model: half the size with a touch screen. By definition this transaction was a net positive for me in an economic sense: I didn't spend any money, and the replacement cost of the new one was the same as the old one. Rationally, the new one would probably last longer before dying. These bits of rationality were so much debris before the storm of my discomfort.
Note that this pathology is not based on some bad experience in which I broke a brand new device and in a fury my father abandoned the family and ran off with his secretary. It is a mental disease sprung fully formed with no past: something is going to break, and then I will sob to myself "this is why I shouldn't have nice things."
This incredibly long winded introduction is my way of implicitly establishing some bona fides before launching into eBooks and the future of books. With thousands of books filling every cranny of my home, and a pathological avoidance of new devices, the fact that I've nurtured a first generation Kindle for the last four years indicates that I am in a peculiar sweet spot of commenting on the subject. I am moderate, hear me roar.
The Encyclopedia Britannica announced the other day that they're ceasing production of their print edition. It marks yet another milestone in the disappearance of print media of any form, with the slow overtaking of paper by electrons. It's being mourned in the usual ways, the nostalgia couched in terms of the irreplaceable. Wikipedia can't replace a print encyclopedia, eBooks can't ever really replace books. They can, they are, they will. Web pages couldn't ever replace a newspaper, the feel of the crisp pages, the meandering through the columns. It's true, an electronic reader can't replicate the nuanced experience of reading on paper. But that's the nostalgia of an experience independent of the content. A web page can replicate the content of a newspaper just fine (on a technical level, let us not get lost down the aside of citizen journalism vs. professional journalism, a topic for another day). And the fact that a particular experience will be lost is fine to mourn in the particulars of your own life and experience, but should not be confused with a loss of the content itself.
I get the nostalgia for physical books. If there was a heaven, I wouldn't walk through the rows of corn onto a sudden baseball field in Iowa, I'd walk through endless musty stacks into the mote filled light of a used bookstore. Crinkling pages curling slightly with a dry rasp as they turn, burned black text on pages yellowing on the edges so you can see their rough texture, the binding creased until it's unreadable. Bury your nose between the pages, breathe deep that musty fragrance of a thousand summer afternoons and nights reading until dawn with a flashlight. That experience is irreplaceable to me. But it will not be to the next generation, or the one after that, just as the crackle of the needle on a record is not something that has the slightest emotional resonance to my generation. But gods, that doesn't mean we've lost music, anymore than electronic books mean we've lost stories.
The nostalgia for all things passes eventually, and new nostalgia takes its place. I see that now in this Kindle of mine, four years old and a few hundred books having flitted by on its screen. This now battered device, with the little diamond shaped flaw at the top of the screen, its black cover case worn so heavily that it leaves little flecks of black on my hands whenever I read, this is the book I'm reading at any given time. I read much faster on it now than I ever could with pages, floating down into a zen like trance: ten seconds, next page, ten seconds, next pages, ten seconds, next page. There's a rhythm of reading that always got tripped up subtly on the physical flipping of pages, a staccato procession of eye scans and page flips keeping the beat underneath the melody of the words. After carting around thin books and thick for a lifetime, there's an almost spiritual experience to books being removed from their physicality and allowed to exist as pure information. The book was never the book, it was the words.
So mourn as you will, it's a crime to not mourn the passing of something loved, but don't worry that we're losing something irreplaceable. Everything is destined to be lost, and anything worth remembering is irreplaceable. And take your little ones and loved ones into those creaky used bookstores, but do it with the good faith of knowing that it is your nostalgia and it's okay that you can't make it theirs. They'll love it because they love you, and anyone worth loving will stand with you in your holy places even if their own hearts are only moved by the look in your eyes.
And give those same ones a beat up old eReader with a thousand books on it that they'd love. The new nostalgia does not tarnish the old.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.