I will be very sad if books are ever relegated to the burn-pile, as depicted in the 1966 film, Fahrenheit 451, starring Oskar Werner, Julie Christie and Cyril Cusak. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you do. (A YouTube clip is below.)
“Fahrenheit 451” is a haunting tale of a society overtaken by a robotic mentality. Books are condemned for they encourage independent thinking, which the ruling government decides is detrimental to man’s happiness. Of course, the comparison to replacing books with e-books is not the same, but might it be the first step toward a technologically controlled society? Might those, like myself, who prefer to read the old-fashioned way, be marginalized by the majority who can order up a book in seconds? Worse, if in the future some evil force with total technological control decides to eradicate all sources for e-books, thus destroying mankind’s history, will we find ourselves in a “Fahrenheit 451” of our own making? I jest, I think, I hope.
The following editorial article in today’s Wall Street Journal reminded me of my passion for the printed book. Rather than try to paraphrase the words of the author, Dan Newman, I’m reprinting what he’s written, verbatim.
I should be the perfect candidate for an e-reader: I own thousands of books, lack space for more and often schlep several heavy volumes in my bag. So when I begged my family to refrain from getting me a Kindle for Christmas, they were confounded.
At first, they thought the problem was that I wanted another model, one that could be dropped without worry, read on my winter camping trips, and never run out of power. Then they realized I was describing an old-fashioned book–paper and binding!–and I lost them again.
E-books are not only better, my family claims, but inevitable. Retail giants tend to agree. Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble and its biggest shareholder, has said that, “Digital publishing and digital book-selling will soon become the most explosive development in the history of our industry and will sweep aside those who aren’t participating.” The physical book will soon be akin to the parchment scroll.
The numbers seem to support this view. Sales of e-books have more than doubled over the last year, to $340 million so far this year from $166 million in 2009. At Amazon.com, e-books now outpace bestselling hardcover editions. So why do I doubt that I’m being left behind?
First, while growth in e-books is impressive, it’s not overwhelming. E-book sales this year will account for 8.5% of all books, a smaller share than Apple commands in the computer market even after years of growth at a similar pace. Though e-books will surely continue to grow, for now about 90% of book sales remain in print form.
Online retailers, particularly Amazon.com, work hard to promote e-books. Kindle advertisements have topped Amazon’s home page–some of the most valuable real-estate on the Internet–for nearly three years. The Web pages for print editions always include links to Kindle equivalents when possible, but the Kindle versions never link back to print forms. Amazon wants you to buy a kindle.
And it should. Kindle sales compete primarily with bestselling hardcovers–the heaviest, most heavily discounted editions that Amazon sells. The Kindle will sweep them aside, its supporters say, because e-books are portable, include useful search functions, and can retrieve new titles within minutes. This last point hardly matters to me, given that I can have physical books delivered within days and already have hundreds of unread books waiting to be cracked. While a search function is useful, it also points to a flaw in the Kindle: All the pages are alike, to the extent that there are pages at all.
I remember passages by where they are in my books–this or that detail is two-thirds of the way through, on the bottom left. That physical memory runs deep.
University of Washington Book Arts Librarian Sandra Kroupa demonstrates as much with a party trick she’s developed. I’ve seen her set down a dozen stiff-backed Little Golden Books before a group of adults. They chatted with delight as they held old copies of “Dumbo,” “Little Toot the Tugboat” and other childhood favorites. “The physical book holds meaning,” says Ms. Kroupa. “If I were to bring a modern edition of ‘Dumbo,’ it wouldn’t elicit nearly the same response.”
Print editions enable shared experiences in ways unavailable to electronic versions. I’m no snoop, but one of the first things I do when I enter a home is scan the bookshelves. As often as not, that sparks conversation about the interests of my hosts and about what they’ve read and hope to read. They invariably pull out other books, some inscribed, and hold them in their hands while we talk.
That experience simply can’t happen crouching over a hard-drive. Imagine entering a living room and saying: “Hey! Mind if I scroll through your Kindle?”
A book is more than a shell for words: It’s a box whose magic starts at its real-world dimensions. No other common item so lacks a standardized size, and that makes individual books memorable. I could tell with my eyes closed if you’ve handed me a copy of “The Great Gatsby” that isn’t mine.
I see e-books as a companion format that will always share space with printed volumes. Perhaps one day, I’ll even travel with a Kindle.
Until then, I’m content with my hefty volume of “Don Quixote,” my tattered grade-school dictionary and my wood-cut illustrated “Moby Dick.” Maybe I’m a Luddite because I feel sorry for children who read “Good-night Moon” on a phone. And perhaps I’m a softie for hoarding my torn copy of “Huck Finn,” a gift from my grandfather, with an inscription that still makes my eyes water.
I could tell you what it says. But it’s best to read with the book held in your own hands.
Mr. Newman is a writer at work on his first novel.
Mr. Newman and I may be a dying breed, especially since we’re not products of the technological age. While I agree that print books are still very much in evidence, only time will tell if they’re here to stay. Recent generations, and those to come, have a different reference point. Hand-writing has been replaced by typing at a computer keyboard. I can’t see that our children, their children, and so on, ever reverting back to practicing their penmanship. Even I prefer to type up a letter on Word Process, than put pen to paper. And my hand-writing has suffered as a result.
I’m passionate about details, small things that make something unique. I’ve taught my daughter to decide which of 2 or 3 items to purchase, by the attention to detail each has. The words in a book are certainly its substance, but its packaging is part and parcel of its attraction. Perhaps an impoverished childhood taught me to cherish the few material things I had, whether I borrowed them or owned them. Library books were especially valuable, for they were my escape from the reality of my surroundings. So collecting them because I can now afford them, seems only natural. They are, after all, still a wonderful avenue for living outside my “box,” since I can’t afford to travel the world over, or back in time, or forward into the future, or into imaginary realms. I admit to being more discerning than Mr. Newman, for I’m sure my books don’t number in the thousands. If they did, we’d have to sell our current home for one larger.
for not letting this “dinosaur” go the way of the others, hugs…hugmamma.