The iPad landed and techno-enthusiasts everywhere hurried, once again, to put on their coroner hats and issue preemptive reports on the death of the old-fashioned book. Now, it may be a different matter for those who crave, in books, the same button-punching dazzle offered by their gadgetry, but to this whisper-of-the-pages-loving reader all the declaiming of late seems a little, um, declamatory.
Before we cue Taps, let's step away from the media juggernaut, take a deep breath of reason, and recall a few (just a few!) of the attributes, consistently neglected in the now-daily hubbub, that continue to make the old-fashioned book not only a viable technology, but, well, a profoundly wonderful one we really don't want to lose.
1 . The book unites delivery device and content. E-readers, drained of battery power, revert to hunks of plastic.
2. The book begets libraries and independent bookstores, irreplaceable bastions of culture and community.
3. The book, beyond cover price, comes with no proprietary fee. Your preferred e-reader sets you back $250 to $500.
4. The book is not an inventory portal, therefore not subject to proprietary restrictions in content; i.e.: Due to licensing or discretionary considerations, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley cannot be downloaded to this e-reading device. (Think this is a joke? “Last week…the creators of a Web comic version of the classic novel, called “Ulysses Seen,” said that Apple required them to remove any images containing nudity before the comic was approved as an application for the iPad.” –New York Times, June 13, 2010)*
5. The book is not a brand, therefore free from functional limitations imposed by a manufacturer; i.e.: The e-book you’re requesting is not supported by your e-reader’s operating system. Upgrade to our newest e-reader or follow this link to our checkout to download OS-2011.5.
6. The book withstands excessive dust, direct sunlight, splashed soup, or dropped potatoes.
7. The book is hard to eradicate except by fire. Is any e-reading device likely to reach — with zero loss of content — an age comparable to civilization’s oldest incunabula?
8. The book, presented as gift, shows regard for the recipient’s tastes, being a single selection and/or bearing the giver’s handwritten inscription.
9. The book can be autographed by its author.
10. The book, by conspicuous display of title and/or author, occasions conversation between mutually inclined strangers.
11. The book may be safely read in the bath.
12. The book relieves you of the screen in an age of relentless screen-media assaults upon the eye.
13. The book is not an immediate access point for innumerable diversions (e-mail, video games, etc.).
14. The book’s printed editions are traceably distinct, a defense against manipulations of fact or history.
15. The book does not “transmit and receive,” except in mysterious ways. No need to fear an Orwellian eye embedded in the page.
16. The book cannot be “swiped remotely” by the powers that be.
17. The book’s publisher may go broke without imperiling access to additional content.
18. The book, bought second-hand or borrowed, yields up fascinating ephemera: grocery lists, love notes, locks of hair, receipts, etc., bringing the reader into poignant contact with an unknown fellow human being.
19. The book complements your mantelpiece.
20. The book boasts many practical uses beyond communication (as furniture, makeshift stairs, etc.). E-readers — oddly shaped and breakable — are as obsolescent as other computer junk once they quit working.
21. The book is not invariably manufactured in China.
22. The book accommodates ingenuity of format: children’s books, art books, illuminated texts, pop-up books, fold-out maps, etc.
23. The book makes a meaningful heirloom.
24. The book may be safely left unattended on the beach. As gizmo it is not a hot steal.
25. The book is not a shopping cart.
*UPDATE: June 16, 2010 — Apple recants. Still, a defender of literature this does not make.
ADDENDUM: “Whether, for the future humanist reader, the book in its present form will remain unchanged is in come ways an idle question. My guess (but it is no more than a guess) is that by and large it will not be transformed drastically because it has adapted so well to our requirements — though these, indeed, may change…
“The question I ask myself instead is this: In these new technological spaces, with these artifacts that will certainly coexist with (and in some cases supplant) the book, how will we succeed in still being able to invent, to remember, to learn, to record, to reject, to wonder, to exult, to subvert, to rejoice? By what means will we continue to be creative readers instead of passive viewers?…
“Just as a certain text is never expressed identically in different tongues, books and electronic memories, like electronic memories and the memories we hold in our mind, are different creatures and possess different natures, even when the text they carry is the same. …They are instruments of particular kinds, and their qualities serve diverse purposes in our attempt to know the world. Therefore any opposition that forces us to eliminate one of them is worse than false: it is useless.” --Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press 2010)(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter)