Books are benevolent furniture. They are organic, and like wood, they give a room a certain vibration. I do not trust anyone who doesn’t own any books, and if, when I visit someone’s home for the first time, I learn they only own coffee table books to arrange as conspicuous advertisements of their consumer preferences, I instantly become sensitive to their other flaws.
I do not like downloading books. I am aware the industry is headed that way and my preference puts me at an increasing disadvantage, and that disadvantage verges on tragic the longer I remain someone who likes to be published. E-books now have a market share of 22%, says Publishers Weekly. Considering Amazon.com itself as a market share of 27%, this era is even grimmer for bookstores than it is for books. I don’t like that, either.
I am told that I should embrace e-books. I am told this by publishers, who stand to save a fortune in manufacturing and shipping costs, and their profit-maximizing fantasy for me is repeated like a mantra from the many slavering tech junkies who swarm Twitter to praise any digital development as the tonic for all perceived ills. Never mind the fact that nearly no celebrated app or website or device is nearly as useful in practice as it is in its celebration, and most usually die off faster than the spring dandelion scourge. They’re like Hindu gods, these apps, or Catholic saints, each one designed to minister to another failing we forgot we had, and all of them in the long run impossible to satiate into permanent domesticity.
When I read a book, I can easily refresh my memory by flipping back to something I previously read. I have to make notes that remind me my mortgage is due, but my subconscious remembers that the passage I want fell this deep in the book, near that corner, on this side of the spine. If I try that with an e-book, I lose the sense of spatial relationships that usually governs my wits. I flail around the scroll bar like a bird in a hall of mirrors.
I do not want to charge up my books. I have enough things to charge, and batteries weaken over time. Given the scandalous (and surely lawsuit-worthy) state of planned obsolescence in the tech world, no Kindle or Nook possesses a fraction of the lifespan, to say nothing of the economy, of a single-purchase paperback.
I can inscribe a book as a gift. Or I can give a book away, and when it comes back slightly tattered, I can demote a friendship over it. If I can stomach the inveterate sourness of the Strand’s disgruntled employees, who clearly love books above human interaction, I can sell it for a little cash later.
I can write in a book’s margins, and I am equally free to return to those notes years later and wonder just how the hell I could have once thought my jibberish constituted brilliant thinking.
I can read a real book on the beach without worrying about getting sand in the little speaker holes or down the ports, and without keeping an anxious eye on its expensive corner peeking out from under a towel while I have a swim. I can hold books over the bubbles in my bathtub without fear. I can splatter them with grease while I fail at another recipe. No publisher ever deleted a book from my bookshelf claiming my DRM rights to read it had expired. Books cost just a few dollars more but you know they will be there as long as you choose.
I am not afraid of bragging about my wealth if I take a book out on the bus. A book allows me to look anonymous if I produce it in an unfamiliar park in a foreign city. A book is not imperialistic, unless it’s the Bible, in which case it depends on what I’m doing with it at the time.
Books stare you in the face. Computer files get glossed over. They vanish in plain sight when you’re scanning a screen for them, but even when it’s upstairs in a box, a book is only waiting for the chance to confront you again. Also, nothing reminds you about undone things more poignantly than a book. Unread books make you appear voracious, like there’s so much more life left worth living, unlike uneaten food, which only makes you a filthy hoarder. Unread computer files, though, are a private waste, and an evidence of laziness that nags through concealment.
I can browse books in a store. (At least, I can for now.) I can make discoveries that I would never have known to make when faced with an empty “Search” field. I can waste 20 minutes in a shop before an appointment by dreaming about what to learn and learning about what to dream. The browsing in e-bookstores is martial, and the peeks of Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature are rigidly administered, the way a prison warden oversees yard time.
Before I can even see the cover of a digital book, I have to know precisely what I’m looking for, but how can I know what lies undiscovered? Cook would never have explored anything if the Endeavour demanded GPS coordinates first. Digitally, my future narrows.
Books have their problems. The pages yellow, and once they begin to emit that starchy, chalky aroma, they remind a person of mortality — sadly, that’s the opposite effect from they had when he first smelled their clean white pages at the store and wondered what vitality he’d glean from their pages. Books take up space, but that’s something I can forgive in a piece of furniture. In numbers, they are heavy. I can live with this, because unlike some people, I guess, I never resented books for the space they take up.
I still own plenty of digital books. Public domain titles and classical titles are available for free thanks to modern distribution methods, and that’s good. I’m satisfied to read a few titles in their luminous, disposable form, but overall, I still prefer books because they become more luminous when they are not disposed of. If I plan to kick around an idea for a while, paper helps it stick around. So my preference is not out of technological fear. I have worked online since Online was a place. It’s simply out of possibility.
The fact e-books exist is wonderful. Bravo to us. But I cannot admire innovation for innovation’s sake, just as the invention of the Band-Aid didn’t make hospitals obsolete.