Cross-posted from Contentions.
“[T]he end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated,” John Podhoretz warns, reporting the news that Amazon now sells more digitalized Kindle-friendly texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined.
I remain skeptical that the codex, the paper-and-binding book, will disappear completely. For two reasons. First, there is a distinction between books that are consumed and never returned to—consumer books—and books that are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. If nothing else, there is the Bible. For someone like me, who taught for two decades in the South, it is hard to imagine Christians abandoning their favorite Bible—the one they read at night, the one they carry to church—for an electronic copy. For many Christians, the first Bible is a major event in their lives. (For Jewish children, the equivalent is receiving their first siddur or prayerbook.) The book is often presented to them in a public ceremony, engraved in gold with their name. (Can you even inscribe a Kindle copy?)
But not only Bibles. Every reader has books that are special to him. Randall Jarrell used to say that he owned several copies of Christina Stead’s Man Who Loved Children (1940), because he so loved the novel that he pressed it upon friends (and friends never return books). Books to be used up and discarded—bestselling fiction, self-improvement guides, popular biographies, books on current affairs—belong nowhere else but on the Kindle. There is, however, another class of books altogether.
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and far more often) worth reading at the age of fifty,” C. S. Lewis said. And that brings me to my second reason for doubting the final disappearance of the “physical book.” Namely, children don’t learn to read on the Kindle, but from the pages that they turn excitedly with their parents. “Talk to it, Daddy,” my son Saul used to say when I opened a book to start reading aloud. When he grew older, he began to acquire his own first books—fine printed editions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The House at Pooh Corner—which he would proudly take to preschool with him, even though he could not even read them.
“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only,” Lewis also said. I am willing to grant that “literary” readers have always been and will remain a minority, but trained in childhood to love the physical qualities of print on paper, the minority will always insist on a few bound books.
Update: The three-way debate on the question “That ebooks spell the end for ‘physical books’ ” was carried on much of the day on Twitter with John Podhoretz and Terry Teachout for the affirmative and me for the negative. Teachout believes the ebook will have entirely replaced the codex in five years, by which time paper-and-binding volumes will be, in Podhoretz’s words, “luxury items.” God willing, we will all live, as Teachout says, to see who’s right.
The Contentions post above started the free-for-all. I’d like to add only one thing to it. As a literary scholar, I too subscribe to the electronic textualists’ motto “Search Is Everything,” and it is undeniable that etexts are easy to search, but I am not convinced that the gain in speed and convenience is not overbalanced by another kind of loss.
Here is a small example of what I mean. Searching for the quotation from Lewis with which I end the post above, I stumbled upon the earlier sentence about books read at ten and again at fifty. Far more elegantly than I, Lewis makes my point about the books a person returns to again and again; and those books, I remain convinced, will be in tangible form for a long time to come.
Using a search-and-find function on an extext, I would have found the one Lewis quotation and not the other. Because I had to thumb an old copy of Of Other Worlds on my bookshelves, I accidentally found a sentence that deepened my own thought. In a single anecdote, that for me is the advantage of the codex over the extext.
Update, II: John Steele Gordon, another COMMENTARY contributor, weighs in here. On my side, more or less.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Cross-posted from Contentions.