Recently, with all the new technology for reading such as i-pads, Nooks, Kindles, etc, I found myself embroiled in a debate with someone over whether books should be electronic or in physical form. This is my response.
Having a bachelor’s degree in English, it’s stating the obvious to say that I love books, words, and writing. I have a certain suspicion that the answers to all the secrets of the universe are hidden somewhere in one of those great old libraries or book stores scattered across the world.
It’s also possible I’ve watched one too many Indiana Jones movies. Or maybe Harry Potter.
Even if I’m never going to come across anything as exotic as a book that opens to contain an entire galaxy or the gateway between life and death in a library, I still regard them as a special space. While atmosphere and architecture are important components to a truly wondrous library or book shop, even the run-of-the-mill basic library with its stacks still has a certain magic to it. It’s all the books and the words within them.
One of my favorite college experiences was making a field trip during my 16th century British literature course over to the campus library. The class was escorted upstairs to the small rare book room. There, we actually got to see and touch some examples of 16th century books. The way the books felt was so different from anything I’d ever experienced. The paper was soft, heavy, artisan, and the books were solid in a way that few books are today.
When I got the opportunity to take a trip through Maine and Massachusetts focusing on the writings, lives, and times of the Transcendentalists, it was a revelation to the entire group that every one of us got excited about stopping in little, out-of-the-way used bookstores and libraries. We oohed and aahed over first editions of Walden or Little Women that were way out of our price range and bought instead tattered, loved copies of Hawthorne or Longfellow for a few dollars.
A few years ago, I got a Kindle as a Christmas gift. This may sound strange, especially coming from someone who waxes rhapsodic about touching 16th century paper, but I found electronic books almost as enchanting as the physical version in a completely different way. I loved being able to instantly access almost any book I could want. I love being able to read with only one hand. The fact that I can go to my computer, log onto the library website, and have a new book borrowed without even leaving the house is a great experience. As a woman who reads several books at once, being able to literally carry a whole repository of them in my purse is wonderful. It’s like having a portal straight into the magical space of a library.
After awhile, however, I started realizing that certain books had to be read specifically in one form or the other for me to get the maximum enjoyment out of them. I generally prefer to read non-fiction in e-book form. I don’t lose my place as easily with the e-book, and I find that the format feels more no-nonsense to me. Reading Tudor history, one of my major hobbies, has become far more enjoyable to me on the Kindle.
On the other hand, I recently won a paperback copy of Frank McCourt’s gritty, exceptional memoir Angela’s Ashes. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, at once bleak, horrible, and yet darkly funny at times. The narration dances, child-like, making the most casually devastating observations as McCourt recounts his miserable childhood first in New York City, then in Limmerick, Ireland. I cannot read Angela’s Ashes on my Kindle. It’s too electronic, too modern for McCourt’s Dickensian story. Holding the book, feeling the weight, feeling the paper is essential to the experience in this case.
Whether in electronic form or weighty tomes, I am grateful for good books. I’m grateful for the ease with which a reader can start reading a new book electronically. I’m grateful for the text set of Angela’s Ashes and the smooth pages. I’m grateful for the fourth cheap set of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where the paper is rough and the spines are becoming creased, because I’ve loved through three other sets that I dragged around throughout middle school, high school, college, and adult life like touchstones. I’m grateful for the electronic edition of Navigating the Land of If: Understanding Infertility and Exploring Your Options, because the day I downloaded it, I couldn’t have waited for a physical copy to arrive.
In the end, it’s all about the books.