Like a gamer to Starcraft 2, I can’t help but be attracted to articles about the death of books, and even better, the death of long-form reading. There’s something about the desperate handwringing that pushes almost every intellectual button I have, from impassioned but futile appeals to the past, to lurid depictions of how new technology will destroy civilisation.
The art of slow reading from the Guardian is a particularly fine and well-written example – and notwithstanding the odd assumption that everyone used to read long texts all the time, and that all of that reading was worthwhile (rather than being on, say, potboilers and pulp) it actually has some very good points about how the internet can distract us from long-form reading. In fact, towards the end I was worried that the article might be missing an essential component, but thankfully…
…Though John Miedema thinks iPads and Kindles are “a good halfway house, particularly if you’re on the road”, the author reveals that, for the true slow reader, there’s simply no substitute for particular aspects of the paper book: “The binding of a book captures an experience or idea at a particular space and time.” And even the act of storing a book is a pleasure for Miedema. “When the reading is complete, you place it with satisfaction on your bookshelf,” he says.
Yes, apparently the binding of a physical book is something that can capture an experience or idea in a way that a weightless, ephemeral eBook never can hope to. And once you’ve finished an eBook, all you can do is touch the ‘Library’ button on your iPad, a nagging sensation of dissatisfaction pulling at your mind as the virtual book flies back into your virtual bookshelf; if only it was physical, the experience would be so much better!
What’s ridiculous about these kinds of arguments – Miedema’s one being a classic – is that they emasculate the very thing they’re trying to defend. Are we supposed to believe that books are so fragile that transferring their text into digital form is going to totally ruin the experience? That having the convenience of buying and reading any book, anywhere, is outweighed by the fact that we can’t slot it into our bookshelves? Books are made of sterner stuff than that, and they’ll survive digitisation just fine.
That’s not to say that I’ll be rushing to get rid of all my physical books, and I still buy physical books; sometimes because they’re cheaper than eBooks, and more rarely, because I like them as beautiful objects. I recently spent $65 on a limited edition of Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. There are only 400 copies of this edition; they’re signed, numbered, cloth-bound, with two-colour foil stamping withan exquisite attention to detail from the publisher and the author; and of course, the story is supposed to be really good as well.
So I’m certainly willing to spend way above the odds for a physical book – not because reading it is more satisfying than an eBook, but because it’s written by an author whom I admire very much, and it comes in a package that is as well-crafted and unique as a handsome vase or a sculpture. Yet if I read it on my iPad, I’m sure the story would be just as good as if I read it on paper.