Fine, yes, I know, everyone in publishing is obsessed with this whole e-book thing. Lots are even saying it’s going to doom the industry (yeah right). Heck, I had a few profs (who, granted, still use WordPerfect because their typewriters got taken away) who thought e-books were another sign of the decline of Western civilization.
Okay, it’s none of the above. If publishers just did the work of putting ink on paper, perhaps—but most things publishing houses do happens long before a drop of ink finds the paper. However, there are a few reasons why the printed book is here to stay.
Nostalgia: Don’t underestimate this one. There’s a reason why we still put a prefix before e-books—they’re not what we think of as books. The printed book has been part of our cultural heritage for over 500 years; the book itself, millennia. There’s something about having physical objects with words on them, on shelves, tables, desks, and floors (look, some of us have run out of shelf space) that’s inherently appealing, even romantic. Plus, you can judge more than books by their covers—yes, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person of judging people on the Metro by the books they’re reading. I mean, who doesn’t want to sit next to the otherwise attractive stranger with a copy of Girl With the Curious Hair? At least you know he/she isn’t yet another overmedicated policy wonk. Ebook? No such snap judgmentalism.
Books are objects: Okay, this one’s kinda related, but different. On the one hand, people like books and are used to using them in certain ways. On the other, the book qua book has certain unique qualities. Yes, the chemicals in the pages break down, producing (among other things) vanillin—but good Lord, it smells good! Yes, books take up space, but, as Ikea and their Swedish books sold in America have shown, sometimes a pretty thing taking up space on a shelf is just what you need. However, a book is something you interact with, a physical object with parts, one that doesn’t dictate how you use it by the constraints of software, hardware, and, well, price. Ereaders pretty much dictate how you use them—to read things. Sure, you can hack the software, upgrade the hardware, and otherwise expand the functionality, but nobody’s ever going to try to make a political statement by putting one in harm’s way. They’re rarified, made of stuff that’s foreign to our experience by techniques most of us haven’t the time to actually understand. Books, on the other hand, have a whole range of symbolic meanings acquired from their matter.
Books burn. They’re thick enough to stop bullets if put in a breast pocket. They can be large and impressive enough to take solemn oaths on. They can be dog-eared, underlined, and handled with dirty fingers, leaving traces of the many who have handled them. They show what we’ve done to them, and where we’ve taken them. The people who handle them can leave indelible traces that identify them as their book. Whereas an e-book is a single instance of a common type, a physical book is an individual object, one with a history. One might auction off Barack Obama’s e-reader in the future, with the e-books he read still on it, but the focus would be on the object, not so much the books. My copy of David Lewis’s Philosophical Papers, Volume II signed by the author? Yes, I bought it just because of that. That copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations? You can tell what project I was working on at the time by what pen or pencil I was using to underline things, as well as what I thought was Important. It’s as much a record of my life and philosophical development as anything else. Nobody buys e-books as souvenirs from a particular place; after all, if you’re getting things off the Internet, the place you buy isn’t that important. Those books I bought from St. Philip’s in Oxford or some tiny bookstore on a side street in Paris’s Latin Quarter? Yeah. Let’s talk about investing things with memory and significance for a bit.
“Substance” is a universal file format: Know Latin? Congratulations! You can read books and inscriptions dating back thousands of years. Learn a bit of paleography (how to read dead people’s weird handwriting) and there’s nothing you can’t read. Paper may degrade or burn, but, while it exists (okay, big “while”), anyone who can make out the glyphs and understand the language can read what’s written. You can’t say the same about computers. Software is constantly being updated for one reason or another; after a certain amount of time, older programs (and, by extension, the documents created and read by them) are no longer supported. Those old shareware games I loved in the late ’90’s? Petrarch the MacBook can’t run them. Neither could Dante the PowerBook.* Apple’s changed the system software so much (as well as the basic architecture of their computers and chipsets) that backwards compatibility is impossible at this point. Granted, you expect that after fifteen years—but how bad will it be after 150? Will you even be able to read old e-books?
Plus, there’s something very egalitarian about print media. Pick it up, read it, pass it on, donate it to the county jail or third world relief agencies—anyone and everyone who can read, no matter how rich, poor, or without power, can, in theory, access books. Live in a village in a part of the world with hostile climate (wet, dusty, and/or hot enough to do Bad Things to electronics), no electricity, trade embargoes, or just no money? Tough cookies.
So, while the Next Big Thing might be big, it’s not going to be the Only Thing. Sorry to those of you who think print is on its way out, but dead tree editions are with us to stay.