Daily Planet 10/25/11

A Defense of
Paper Books

Daily Planet, Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. —Jorge Luis Borges

My wife recently acquired the latest version of a Kindle e-reader, which I consider an ominous portent. Maureen has always been ahead of me in adopting the next digital miracle that overnight becomes essential to life as we know it. That I have generally followed her lead is what troubles me. When I see her happily scrolling through the “pages” of an e-book, I shudder to think that a few years from now I too might be seduced.

The transmission of current information and access to the world’s accumulated knowledge has indisputably improved in the digital age. Music, video, newspapers and periodicals have largely fallen from their traditional format of dissemination, and traditional book publishing is not far behind. Amazon already sells more e-books than paper books. Borders is in liquidation, and Barnes & Noble is struggling to go digital. The big bookseller chains are now tasting the bitter fruit they served a generation ago to small independent booksellers. Technological change is not kind, but it is blindly efficient, and that is what counts. I suppose buggy manufacturers once voiced objection to their obsolescence, but they bowed to the inevitability of progress, as the superannuated must. Not without throwing a fit, as I intend to do now on the decline of printed books, with full recognition that I’m vainly howling in the wind.

I liked the old regime. An hour or two browsing among the shelves of a bookstore was a stimulating intellectual pleasure, and I felt guilty if I didn’t buy something to pay for the pleasure. The regional temple for this experience is the Tattered Cover in Denver, where in the past I would dreamily lose track of time until yoked back into bright reality by a schedule-minded wife or son. I haven’t been there in recent years, but I fear the Tattered Cover, like its counterparts in other major cities – the Strand Bookstore in New York, Powell’s Books in Portland, for example – are destined for the same dustbin of history as the national booksellers. The venerable Hatchards in London (1797) will probably be the last to go. It was humming two weeks ago, as if its patrons had never heard of Amazon.

Tweedy neighborhood bookstores, once common in America, have dwindled to curiosities, gilded with an antiquarian patina. I was especially fond of these quaint outposts for their rumpled atmosphere. The musty odor of a vanished age infused the air as you walked their narrow aisles, nibbling on volumes of unknown or forgotten tomes. Curiously, an approximation of this model still survives in Telluride. Bless the owners of Between the Covers for their unrequited gesture to the past.

If reading books on paper is going the way of the dodo bird, I intend to be the last dodo to expire. More than Luddite resistance to change lies in my recalcitrance. For me the tangibility of a printed book is essential to the experience. I want a physical item that allows me to dog-ear a page, mark a passage, flip back and forth. Most importantly, I want something I can possess and put on the shelf of my personal library as a reminder of a past interest or experience even if I never re-read it. The same impulse prompts people to retain mountains of old photos that they rarely, if ever, look at again. That every photo and every book can be saved digitally is the rational solution to the obvious space issues that arise, but I still prefer the tactile clutter of my barely organized stacks of books. On a disk or hard drive they would lose their totemic value.

I expect bookstores, except those catering to antiquarian collectors, will gradually fade away in my lifetime. Public libraries will become banks of computers rather than shelves of paper. And I suppose I may one day be told by Amazon that the book I’m attempting to order is available only electronically. I’m prepared for that. I have a decent stash of good stuff to feed my habit, writers to sustain me through many rusting winter nights. Their old pages will once again bring to vivid life “the baseless fabric of this vision/ the cloud-capped tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces/ the solemn temples, the great globe itself/ yea, all which it inherit…” Customs change, often nudged by technology. So I’m also prepared to resort to Maureen’s Kindle (she will have moved on to the next generation gadget by then) if that is what it takes to indulge in the evocative power of a good book. But I don’t look forward to that day.