I'm a freelance writer covering digital media, social media, tech, science, and culture. This is my personal blog.
One of the ongoing debates I have with my boyfriend is about books. He is certain that in the not-so-distant future, books will be like records: rarities sought out only by collectors and snobs as the majority of users switch to a digital format. The very idea of that makes me unspeakably sad. And that’s not just hyperbole; I’ve found it very challenging to explain to him why I think that is a terrible idea. I just know that, despite the convenience of an e-reader, a total switch to that medium goes against every fiber of my being. Is it due to my slightly Luddite tendency to resist new technologies? Or is it part of my overarching fear that the digital world in general is one that favors quantity of information over quality of knowledge?
This evening, I read the most pretentious yet thought-provoking argument I’ve ever read in favor of books. It’s an essay by William H. Gass called 'In Defense of the Book.' Some of his essential points I agreed with wholeheartedly:
Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts they’ll be gone. Off the screen they do not exist as words.
But he also makes disparaging comments about whole of the digital realm, which to me seems unfair. I mean, I’m not opposed to means of rapid/instantaneous communication or broader access to facts. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re doing so on a computer or smartphone or other wired device. And I put it on the Internet so that you can do just that.
So my first disagreement with this Gass piece is that I see a use for both formats of reading. I don’t care how realistic and paper-like the screen of an e-reader is, it cannot replace the physical sensation of having a book in your hands or the joy of opening a familiar volume that has been well loved. But if I want to get in touch with my friend in Germany, I’m not going to resort to carrier pigeon.
My second disagreement is that I don’t think the importance of reading is entirely lost on the general populace. As presented by Gass, reading books is an activity only engaged in by the intellectual elite. In a world where journalism and politics are dominated by the voices that shout the loudest rather than speak the truest, that seems to be a dangerous reinforcement of how smart people are viewed. Eggheads in their ivory towers. Out of touch with the real world. Wouldn’t it be more useful to encourage more people to question critically, to crack their minds open, to see beauty and power in language? Reading shouldn’t be a rarified act, no matter what the medium is. It can be an intellectual exercise, sure, but it can also be an escape, a warning, a fight, a lesson, a work of art. If it takes an e-reader to make people receptive to engaging with literature and words, I’m okay with that. If a person eventually comes to love both reading and books, so much the better.
In my own life, I’ve recently realized how little time I’ve devoted to reading in the past year. I’d been filling my time with plenty of other activities, but nothing filled that space I’d always reserved for books. I’m very happy to be nourishing that growth again.