This commercial interrupted my viewing pleasure recently. Average-looking guy stands against a white background, holding his douchey-looking device. Enter right a pretty lady who strikes up a conversation. “Can’t talk now! On my way to the bookstore. Gotta get a book that’s released today!” she says, dramatizing an interaction that may have ever happened twice in the last twenty years. “Oh,” says the guy smugly, “you mean…this one?” Holds up his Kindle and, BAM! The woman is stunned; where has she been? Suddenly she and her trip to the bookstore look completely idiotic because here, in its digitized glory, is the book she’s been lusting after! Her eyes instantly sink into the text she was running red lights to get at, and in the ad’s final push, the guy gives her that “puh-leese, get your own” smirk that separates the world of commercials from that of functional society. She sheepishly withdraws, presumably to go buy a Kindle so she never has to be embarrassed like this again. Or she’s off to cut herself, we can’t be sure.
I flew into a rage after this commercial defecated on my TV the most concentrated salvo at the printed word I’ve ever seen. I glanced over to my shelf, where my books looked at me and quivered with fear like a bunch of puppies afraid I was going to throw them into the pound. It’s ok, I said, and I pet them. I won’t let them take you. And I’ll be damned if I ever do.
The recent history of consumer technology has seemingly been guided by the goal of liberating intellectual property and data from its earthly confines by digitizing it. The positive of this trend is obvious: instant access and easy storage for virtually all of human thought. The negative, however insignificant, is the pronunciation of a consumerist truth we long preferred to ignore—that when you buy a book or a record or a movie, the only piece of it that you own is the physical material. That film, that album isn’t yours, the plastic disc is. This Cartesian split has passed through all of the media we consume, famously leaving the record industry and print news in its wake. There is, however, one last frontier yet to be separated, but it’s the intellectual Holy Grail: books.
And I like it that way.
I stand here to pledge my allegiance to the real things. (The verbal duality of ‘book’ is no coincidence, by the way. A disc is not necessarily an album, but there’s perfect unity between a physical book and the name of what it represents. The substance and the accidents are entwined.) First of all, I happen to like the tactile element. Two ceremonies usually bracket the life of a book I’ve read. When I first get it, I take a deep whiff of the paper. This isn’t a delicate hello, either. I’m talking about a violent faceplant into the precise middle of the thing that follows a glance around to see if anyone’s looking. My sister likes to bite a healthy chunk of pages—that’s her thing. At the conclusion of the read, when you get to that last page and you’re excited because you’re finished, and so you read the author’s bio but you still have momentum so it’s on to the acknowledgements, but those are too boring, it is at that point that the best channel left, I find, is to close the book, grip it tightly shut, and give it a good whack! against a table. It gets my ears in on some action that my eyes and hands have been hogging. Then I can set it down and look at the stack of pages that I’ve just read. I personally think the multisensory experience is an important component of reading, because looking at and thumping the physical properties of the information you’ve just welcomed in helps it eke out a little nesting space in your consciousness. Your mind has earned it, and your hands should too.
A physical book is real in the conceptual sense, too. What words are to shapeless thoughts, books are to words. They are aids, crucibles, and scaffolding at the same time. The printed page carries with it a responsibility, because printedness is a commitment. Words on a screen are impermanent and superfluous. A printed idea is important enough to exist; on a screen, it can only be theory. You could copy, paste, and rewrite text on an iPad. If you want to change something in a printed book, you’d have to messily write on top of it; you’d have to deal with the facticity of the words.
There are practical considerations, too. For one thing, electronic books are easier to confiscate than real books. An e-reader can connect to a massive digital network, but God help the contents of your cute little read-o-screen if the operator of that network no longer wants it in your hands. Books may be quaint, but they pass the paranoia test. To seize them you’ve got to initiate physical force; to destroy them, you need a nice, public burning. But to delete them? One Gestapo could do it remotely in a single second and still have a free hand for his sauerkraut sandwich.
Digital media can also be edited or rewritten easily, which is attractive except in cases of what is best unchanged. The Wikipedia entry on the Iraq War, for example, has undergone thousands of changes since 2003, causing the actual tone of the article and even its implied appraisal of the war to shift dramatically. Such a trajectory is acceptable for popular opinion, but for an encyclopedia article? Now, Wikipedia can track the revision history, but if there were some powerbroker who wanted to erase it, onerous to track through though it already is, Wikipedia would have no record of contemporary attitudes at, say, the war’s launch. Contemporary attitudes are the facts upon which history is written. They are the three-fifths clause, they are the Pentagon Papers. For this reason, the ability to rewrite or delete is more powerful than the ability to report. Without the static statement of a printed page, history would be impossible. Finally, there’s the obvious concern that anything digitized can be copied infinitely for free, threatening any industry that incentivizes writing. The music industry is simply not in better shape now than it was before, and the same will happen to publishing if they’re not careful.
If you are happy with your nook or Kindle or eReader or whatever else you have, you are either less attached to the old ways or more forward-thinking than I am. Congrats on definitely being richer. But try to pull it off a dusty shelf and revisit old dog-ears from years ago; try to write in its margins to put you own stamp of reality on someone else’s; try to flood your memories by running your finger along a line of worn spines. Most of all, try feeling like you really own this piece of art that you’ve just spent days or weeks engaging. That’s just the first thing that a book is good for. The second is propping up a couch.