The argument for real books against virtual books is often based on the thingness of the real book — the beauty of the binding, the pleasure of handsome design and typesetting, the sensuality of turning a paper page, the pride of ownership. I sympathize with that, but I’m a reader, not a collector — I love my books (and I have lots of them) for what’s in them. Except for a few dear, battered kid’s books that both my mother and I read as children, the physical individuality of a book is pretty secondary to me.
And so, given this priority of the contents, I’ve defended the e-book and e-reading devices as an extension of, not an attack on, The Book — as augmentation, not loss or destruction.
But this piece is about one way e-books do involve a real limitation, a loss. If this appears somewhat inconsistent, consider: what is life without incompatible realities?
It all began (like many novels) with a letter. I hide from fan email and the social media because email for business and with close friends is all or more than I can handle. Sometimes my PO mail is more than I can handle, too, though I always hope to respond. Anyhow, the letter Orion Elenzil wrote me was handwritten on paper, and it was a very nice letter of appreciation. But there was a PS or afterthought that I was particularly struck with. Orion says it’s OK to quote him:
…About traditional paper books compared to E-books… There’s an aspect to traditional books which is lost in even the best electronic reader, which is Accidental Discovery: i’m reading this or that, and leave it laying about the house, and you visit and see it, or you’re perusing my book-shelves to see what i’m up to, and find something which interests you. I’m a technologist, and i worry that this casual, accidental, and as you mention, social means of discovering by talking about books is threatened by devices which need to be explicitly searched in order to find out what they hold.
I answered him right away (by email — he did say he’s a technologist!) I said:
Your ‘minor point’ about books on paper as opposed to ebooks, the quality of Accidental Discovery, seems to me actually a pretty major issue. What it made me think of first was library card catalogues…. The electronic library catalogue has all kinds of uses and virtues, but (at least as far as I can manage to use it) it absolutely lacks Accidental Discovery. Maybe it has a little Planned Discovery, via subject search, but it just can’t provide what the card catalogue did by way of serendipitous blundering into related or totally unrelated books and authors via the drawer of cards you happened to be looking at.
Then of course the library shelf multiplies Accidental Discovery enormously…. My “research method” was to go to the largest library accessible to me, get into the stack where some books about whatever it was were, and blunder around in those shelves pulling off books until I found the ones I needed. I mean, how much can you know from the title? One book on Ancient Roman Sewers will be useless and the one next to it will be a revelation. But riffling through to establish such judgments seems immensely easier to do with an actual bound book than with the page-by-page limitation of a reading device. (Not sure of that, since I still don’t own one, though I’ve played with them — maybe I just don’t know how to e-riffle.)
To this Orion answered,
I think you’ve hit a nail on the head with the process of browsing the stacks of a library, or of a bookstore. I often head into a bookstore without a specific author or type of book in mind, and just walk around looking at titles and covers, or trying out a couple pages in the middle until something catches my eye. or not.
(Of course, of course! — and this activity, browsing, is so important, and so impossible anywhere but in an actual, physical bookstore — the bookstores we’ve lost, because we’ve let ourselves be lured into the pathless jungles of the Amazone…. )
I hold some hope that this organic and somewhat undirected discovery of books may eventually find an analogue in the digital age. I never would have predicted the amazing ways of sharing online we currently have, so I can’t profess to imagine what the e-reader may become in another ten or twenty years. But I absolutely agree with you that the current modes lack the accidental discovery which artifact books have so wonderfully. Altho I confess I’m also criticizing e-readers without having used them.
(Me too — have played with several kinds of e-reader, but haven’t yet felt a need to own one.
(Orion goes on: )
Another minor aspect I enjoy of traditional books which is currently meaningless with their digital offspring is that each book is its own artifact, complete with a small history and story. Many book-lovers would condemn me, but I’m an inveterate marker-of-pages and notes-in-the-margin maker. And it may be a small hubris, but in books I feel a particular connection with, I generally add my own name beneath the author’s on the title page — not as a mark of ownership, but of history. And now that I say it out loud, I realize that perhaps that agrees with your notion that “Reading is a collaboration”.
In any event, I’m positive that reading will remain healthy, and I’m hopeful that e-reading may discover ways to provide these things we enjoy in traditional reading.
I hadn’t even thought about writing-in-books. It’s a subject naturally loathesome to the librarian. And to the kind of collector who encases an unread book in plastic to preserve its virginity. But Orion is right, it’s important.
Underlining whole passages as I used to do, or even worse covering them with neon hiliter, is a lazy student habit that severely defaces a book. But the pencilled exclamation point or question mark, and the “Bullshit!” or “Wow!” or more subtle or cryptic comments in the margin, are only mildly intrusive, and can be enjoyable, adding a lively sense of connection to an earlier reader. A previous owner’s name on the flyleaf or title page gives this same sense of continuity. An old book bought secondhand may have the names of several people who owned the book, and sometimes dates – 1895, 1922, 1944…. This always touches me. I like to add my name and the year, respectfully, to the list.
My beloved friend Roussel Sargent recently gave me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in 1596 and rebound in vellum in 1604 — a very small, very thick volume, pocket-size, the letterpress still black and clear, imprinted on linen paper that weighs nothing and has worn like iron. For all my lack of the collector’s instinct, I handle that little book with reverence. It is the oldest book I have ever touched, by far. And touch does mean a good deal. So does time.
I know what the contents are, but reading Ovid in this edition would be even slower work for me than reading Latin always is. When I look into it, I’m far more likely to try to puzzle out the writing-in-the-book than the printed text. The margins are full of comments and the close-printed lines are interlineated with translations (mostly into German, or with another Latin word) in various colors of ink, some very faded, and many different handwritings, all tiny and mostly illegible to me. This book has been a scholar’s treasure and perhaps a schoolboy’s torment, it’s been bought and sold and given, lost and found, it’s been jammed into the pockets of greatcoats, thumped about in rucksacks, pored over in student lodgings, it has gathered dust in attics, crossed many waters, and changed hands a hundred times; it contains four hundred years of obscure human histories right along with the two-thousand-year-old words of the poet. Would I prefer it virginal, encased in plastic? Are you crazy?
But the question I can’t answer has to do with content. It’s this: To what extent is the Metamorphoses in e-book form the same book as the one I’ve been describing?
I don’t know.
But thinking about it has made it clearer to me that what there is to a physical book beside its text may be quite important. And it appears that these aspects, these qualities, these intellectual and social accidents, are at present inaccessible to electronic technology: irreproducible.
I hope my generous correspondent Orion is right that we may figure out how to restore human connectivity to the e-book, so that it does not, like so much of what we do on our electronic devices, isolate us more and more deeply, even as we are busier and busier communicating.
25 March 2013