Friday, May 20, 2011

The books we never abandon

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.


scott g.f.bailey said...

Serendipitous moments like yours go away with straight text searches of digital files, which is one of the many reasons I hate ebooks. But maybe such serendipity also depends on there being a curious reader of the text doing the searching.

One also has to be suspicious of Amazon's figures. They have always been, shall we say, less than wholly credible. Amazon has for a long time lumped zero-cost "sales" of ebooks into their reporting, and those free texts might account for up to half of their "sales." Add into that number the self-published books through Createspace and who knows, really, how many print book sales were lost to ebooks. I haven't followed the Podhoretz/Teachout/Myers hydra on twitter so perhaps all of this has been discussed already.

D. G. Myers said...

Podhoretz says Amazon sales figures are a “fact.” The research I cite is “bullshit.”

That’s why I love John.

Lee said...

While I'm not about to abandon my physical books, and I agree with you entirely about the multisensory aspect of reading (and learning to read), one sort of serendipitous experience - online browsing - is replacing or at least supplementing another - bookshelf browsing. Though online texts and resources are not what you mean by ebooks, I think it's worth pointing out that serendipidy is not being lost.

bkbsmiles said...

My dad is reading 45 books at one time. He does not want a kindle. None of us do. I do enjoy subscribing to an online library because it is a good source for texts. Traditionally, I do prefer turning pages although my ocd makes it a problem for me for reasons that I will not explain. I hope people keep printing books!

Y. Jamal said...

Not only have ebooks destroyed the sensory experience of reading, but it also lost a kind of connection with paper and words that are far more vital to the whole experience of reading. Once that sense is lost, then reading becomes flat and lifeless. The difference between a physical book and, for example, a kindle, is that the former can be preserved while the latter can be destroyed and damaged quite easily. Preservation becomes the difference between the two, and it is what makes the physical book more treasured than an ebook. I can understand that there are advantages that come with the age of digital reading, but one has to consider the downside of letting go of the emotional experience of holding a new book and the feel of the cover and the smell of the pages. I don't know if I am not being eco-friendly, as digital books can save trees, but I feel that something very valuable can be lost with ebooks.

literature2009 said...

Not only do ebooks cause damage to the sensory feeling of a physical book, but it also destroys the whole emotional experience of holding a new book and feeling the brand new cover and enjoying the smell of the pages. If I do not sound eco-friendly, as ebooks can save more trees than we can imagine, but I am advocating not only reading, but the joy and the feel of it. I also don't believe that people would read more with kindles. The words on those kinds of deives are flat anf lifeless. Reading is not just something to do to kill time, it is an life experience.

forcheville said...

This is starting to look like a page from the dictionary of received wisdom.
I'm sure Bouvard and Pecuchet would abhor ebooks too.

Scott Cunningham said...

I love reading, and I have a good deal of time during the day that I could read. However, I never seem to have my book with me during those times. As I'm currently battling with Infinite Jest, it's a bit of a chore to keep the book on my person. Trying to find time to read it has made me want a Kindle, which I previously had no interest in.

I don't think I see the connection between the idea reading a book several times and the notion of the e-book. When I read a book more than once, it's because the actual writing made an impact on me; it has nothing to do with the physicality of the thing.

Even taking notes is possible with an ebook if you carry a little notebook to jot down thoughts and passages, and you're still weighing yourself down less than you would carrying a paperback copy of Herzog. Not to mention the ability to be carrying your whole library at once. If I have an idea that I'm sure connects somehow to something I read, I can look that up immediately, rather than trust myself to remember to do it later.

I love books, and all the physical qualities that you all mention, and I don't think they're going anywhere either, but I am also becoming a bigger and bigger Kindle fan. My biggest hesitation is the DRM and Amazon's ability to take back your purchases (or the related fear of what would happen to them if Amazon were to collapse), but there are ways around that apparently.

49erDweet said...

Put me down on your side of this discussion, DGM. I know there are those who believe e-books to be even slicker than sliced bread, but your suggestion there are one-time-to-be-read books that belong on Kindle and "favorites" we would need to revisit forever, thus want them in codex, is simply too true for a wise person to refute.

Unless, of course, one wishes to believe in the altruistic future of Amazon AND that someone has finally constructed an electronic device which will be fully functional for more than fifty years. Don't count on that happening anytime soon.