e-Books Smell Like the Future, That’s What


I have big news that you were all wrong about.

Economic research says printed books and e-books have reached an equilibrium now, with neither one spelling the doom of the other. This makes sense, and I’ve been urging people to shut their traps about the danger of e-books for a while now. Fuddy-duddies obsessed with the “feel” of a book aside (feeling other human beings’ myriad parts is very important, but a book is just pulp and glue), there were real businesses at stake. Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” division is going under, killed by the Kindle and its ilk, but B&N as a whole is doing okay.

This is good because bookstores are nice places to go and I like going to them. However, I worked as an office temp for Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” Digital Content Division when I lived in New York City, and I’ve owned plenty of Nooks, and you’re all wrong about e-books.

It’s the story that matters. Narrative is a part of human expression, like music, and pictures. The song didn’t die when we went to MP3s instead of vinyl and the picture didn’t die when we invented Photoshop. In fact, these things infused their art forms with a newfound excitement and accessibility that upsurged their popularity and relevance a great deal.

As always, there are “purists” and classicists and they’re entitled to their preference, but they’re not entitled to lie to you: e-books will not kill books any more than the iPod killed music.

It’s reductive to talk of killing the “book.” It’s the story that’s important – the ideas and characters and plot expressed in words from the author to the reader. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hardback or paperback or e-ink-reader or HD tablet. As a writer (admittedly an amateur one), I’m not automatically on the side of printing or publishing any more than ancient scribes were on the side of the chisel. The partnership between publishing and writing is an old and important one but it’s not the sacred one. That responsibility is to the reader, to the story, and to myself, in constantly shifting order.

One of my other book-related jobs was for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Library when I was an undergrad there. I would walk over to the various departmental libraries, pick up requested books, and ship them out to people who had asked for them. I distinctly remember one librarian who was always ornery and reluctant – miserly, even – when it came to lending her books. I understand a healthy respect for books (I have a signed Giver, and a rare edition Order of the Phoenix, and other such-like prizes) but when it comes down to it they are books, for reading.

I felt a deep antipathy even then for the mindset that would keep books away from people out of reverence for the matter rather than respect for their content. I vowed to become the kind of kindly bookworm who snuck books to as many irresponsible people as possible and distributed them about freely, wantonly, like sperm at a sorority house.

It was bothersome that someone would want to keep books from others in an academic setting, but how much more bothersome it is in the wide world for someone to value paper more than that greatest thing we use to make meaning in our lives: stories.

Anyone who knows me knows I hate James Joyce. But the man was brilliant. (From his unique amorous letters I imagine J.J. would be a blast to have a beer with, but I hate reading most of his work because it’s so, well, boring – when it isn’t being indecipherable). Well one of the brilliant explanations he put forth on aesthetics in Portrait of the Artist was about the different dimensions that are occupied by different forms of art.

A painting, he said, occupies a space in the universe. There’s a particular place it takes up, and you can contemplate that place for as long as you want. A song, on the other hand, occupies a particular time in the universe. It doesn’t appear anywhere physically, but it runs for its duration and then is no more. He did not speak about movies (which makes sense, since Portrait was published in 1916), but a movie takes up both: it’s on a particular space, and it runs a specific time. The movie is one way to tell a story.

A book is similar, albeit more complicated. Its length depends on how fast you read, and you can stop and go back and so forth, but ultimately it’s all about what speed your brain goes through the symbols. The book ends, so it takes up a particular amount of time. And the words are visual, which is why you can stop and go back, and analyze a sentence, or examine the letters. So it takes up space too.

Sure, someone can read it out loud to you but if it’s a book then there are physical, specific words somewhere that someone is reading from in an exact and particular arrangement. (If there aren’t, it’s an amorphous story in the oral tradition, which is the blurry line with dramatic performance, but we don’t have to get into that.) As long as there are specific, decided words that an author made and you can experience, the narrative is a book.

And this is what a book is: words in a space, that you can read in a certain time. Doesn’t matter if it’s on tablets, parchment, paper, pixels, braille, or James Earl Jones’s recorded voice. People who pledge allegiance to a particular medium are being nearsighted. Case in point: the young Helen Keller first learned words and stories through gestures on her hand. It’s not about how it gets to your brain or your heart. A story is a story. And e-books are going to be a great part of our life’s story.


3 thoughts on “e-Books Smell Like the Future, That’s What

  1. James Joyce didn’t write about movies in 1916 not because they didn’t exist but because he’s a schmuck. One of the most inventive and seminal movies ever made, A Trip to the Moon (referenced often in Scorsese’s Hugo), was made in 1902. Based on that, your whole argument about eBooks is made invalid.

    • Well, I never said movies didn’t exist in 1916. I said it makes sense that J.J. didn’t write about them, since “Portrait” was published in 1916. It makes sense he didn’t recognize the importance of film, the way people over the past few years failed to recognize the greatness of eBooks. Especially as “Portrait” is a rewrite of the story he tried to tell in “Stephen Hero,” which he wrote between 1901 and 1905, and also because he is a schmuck. Although I really like some stories he wrote in “Dubliners,” like “Araby,” which is a great banner-flying of infatuated, emotional, intellectual little boys everywhere. Nevertheless, my whole argument is invalid because “German Chocolate” is not named for Germany but for an American guy named Sam German who invented it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T04R6PEX5Eg).

  2. Pingback: eBooks are Overrated | themidnightdiner

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