I've been thinking about something bookish the last few days, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl here on the blog. It started when I read this article, by Alan Kaufman, last Friday (linked by the irrepresible ebooknocrat Nathan Bransford).
Now, I'd have to agree with everyone who said the article was alarmist and overdone - and perhaps rather insensitive, considering some of the comparisons made. And I found this unfortunate because underneath the hyperbolic rhetoric there were some interesting ideas.
I should say, first, that I'm not exactly anti-ebook. It's obvious that it's going to be a major growth market over the next few years, and if it makes some (or many) readers happy, then I'm glad. I saw my first live Kindle the other day. It's a very neat gadget, and I can see why some people like them. My neighbours were certainly thrilled with it. And this shows both its potential (so seductive)... and that the timeline may be a little slower than some people think. I'd never seen one until a few days ago. Never. There's a long way to go, it seems, before we reach market saturation.
But that saturation point may be somewhere around the corner. If and when... that seems pretty uncertain to me. But since the possibility is on the horizon it does make me think about that article. Certainly it would not be the end of culture, of literature and all things human, as Kaufman suggested. That's utterly alarmist. But there is a loss. And perhaps it's an acceptable loss, but loss it still is.
What I think is lost is the particularity and uniqueness of a book. And I don't mean "books", plural and in the abstract. I mean book, singular and concrete. A book is an object. It's something real that you hold in your hands, something unique that exists outside all other things.
This is what we lose with ebooks. Now, yes, there is something egalitarian about ebooks, about everything being reduced to digital coding, a sort of democratic darwinism at play in the shuffle of digital texts as they jockey for the limelight. Stripped down and sleek, reduced only to the essentials, the strings of words that form the backbone of their meaning.
And this is the essential part. The words, the sentences, the stories. And this is why the Kaufman article is so alarmist. The stories will be saved, will still be savoured and shared.
Yet a book is something a little more than its essentials. Perhaps these little trimmings are only of passing interest and shedding them will come at little cost... but I, for one, will miss them. And perhaps we all will, too, when we have a chance to look back from the digital future to a paper-filled past.
A book is a thing. A particular thing. And not just in the sense that Stephen King's Under the Dome is different from Marilynne Robinson's Home, but in the sense that one Home is different from another Home. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback... yes, yes, but even between one trade paperback and another. Each book is its own entity with its own history. Some fresh out of box or wrapper, others that have been read, that have been handled and dropped and picked up again. Some have been shared, passed from person to person, each new reader leaving a few traces of themselves behind. A few crumbs, or lines underlined, or signatures offered. A pretty boy or girl's phone number scrawled on the inside of a cover in a script loopy with hope and alive with the electricity of the moment's connection.
A little story: I found, once and long ago, a copy of a book in a used bookstore, a book called If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of my favourite writers. It's a postmodern sort of book, self-aware and self-referential, knowing itself as a story and sharing that knowingness with its readers. And one of these previous readers had written comments on these intertextual comments, a sort of conversation, inter and outer at the same time. And yet another reader (with yet another penmanship) offered comments on these comments.
And what I had in my hands was a book utterly unique in the world. There was nothing else like it. The meaning of the text had bled outside the words, outside the sentences set on the page.
I regret this loss in ebooks, where stories are reduced to encoded text, a book pared to its essential minimum. Lost is this conversation, the uniqueness of the book as object. I can see ebooks blurring a little at the edges. The unchanging device, the eye that can no longer differentiate between one story and the next. A vagueness creeps in along the borders, like photographs slightly out of focus. Liminal spaces grow, a No Man's Land that swallows a few lines here, a few lines there.
And the thingyness of books is lost. The choice, for a book, between using one kind of paper and the next. The texture of it, the faint pebbling of it against the fingertips, the richness of the colour, the revels of whiteness in a thousand shades. Smooth edge, or rough? I like those rough-edged pages, sort of feathered and soft, the little peaks and valleys running along the edge of the books. (With ebooks there are no edges at all.) The cover art, and the cover itself. The weight of it, the way the pages turn. The binding, loose or tight. It's not a perfect world, I admit. Water damage, spines breaking, bindings loosening until pages drop like leaves in the cold of autumn. Not a perfect world, but a real and particular one. Each leaf, living and dying, unlike the rest.
I think of a future where each leaf is really just a dream, a dream of a leaf in a treeless world, and in this future I find myself a little wistful, a little sad, a little cold. There is just the ether, the wind whistling through, unobstructed, across a grey and featureless plain.