The first time I ever had a writing piece published was in my senior year of high school when an essay I wrote for my English class made it into the local paper. My teacher had assigned us to answer the question, “Will computers ever replace books?” Being the book-lover that I am, I said no.
Now, as it turns out, some of the arguments I made have been thoroughly refuted by time. For example, I claimed that electronic media would never be able to replicate the sort of serendipitous discoveries I used to make when flipping through a paper encyclopedia — I mentioned running across an article for “Popocatepetl” while looking for the article on “Pianos.” Of course, anyone who has ever spent hours link-hopping through Wikipedia knows how wrong I was on that count.
Yet, even though I’ve turned out to have missed the mark in some ways, I still maintain that physical media will always have a place in the world.
Electronic media have continued to improve over the years. Lightweight, portable readers and always-available download services have made them unbeatably convenient. I have no doubt that some day e-books will address the two biggest remaining complaints: price of entry and readability. But there’s one thing that will always separate paper books, and unlike these other differences, I think that this one is an inherent quality of the two forms.
It comes down to durability. Digital files are, by nature, ephemeral, and even hardware tends to be short-lived. I mean, how many people reading this are doing so on a computer more than ten years old? And as technology continues to improve, even hardware will move from being short-lived to being essentially disposable. Meanwhile, I still have paperbacks that I inherited from my parents when I was a child.
This might not seem such a big thing. After all, e-books are cheap enough that the fact that any individual file won’t last isn’t such a problem, practically speaking. And, besides, isn’t the important thing the text, and not the way it’s delivered?
My copy of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story puts the lie to arguments like those. I haven’t seen the dust jacket in more than two decades, and the copper-colored cloth on the binding is stained from years of handling. The gold lettering has mostly rubbed off of the cover, and the image of the twin snakes embossed on the front — each biting the tail of the other —is barely visible anymore. And yet, there’s something special about this book.
Every time I touch that book, whether to re-read it or just to move it to a new shelf, I’m reminded that this is the same copy I held in my hands when I was six years old, reading it for the very first time. It’s the same copy that my mom first read, herself, and in that way I feel a connection to her when I read it, too. I feel the same thing for my dad when I see his boyhood Hardy Boys novels on my living room shelf. And maybe some day my own son will get a hankering for a fantastic adventure or youthful mystery, and will feel the same connection to me through these same books.
Of course, some of that would come through even if I bought my son a new copy of his own, and even, I’d imagine, with a digital copy. For me, at least, though, knowing that my parents’ fingers touched these same pages adds to the feeling, deepens it. And try as I might, that’s just not something I can see an e-reader or tablet PC ever doing just as well.
“Read to Forget” Gibson Claire McGuire Regester @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Reading an e-book” LA Times blog
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