We Believe in the Future of Books (But Not for the Reason You Think)

fancy antique book with the title "ain't nothing like the real thing baby"There’s nothing wrong with e-books. They’re convenient in so many ways. We love communication, the sharing of stories and ideas. If digital media gives us another way to share those things, so much the better. But just because there will most certainly be more digital books in the future doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the physical book. Let us take a moment today to defend this humble pile of pulp and glue that has arguably been the linchpin of human civilization.

I know what you’re thinking. You are going to say, books just feel better. They have a smell, a texture, a heft that no gadget can match. But, while I’m inclined to agree, I want to stay away from that argument. It strikes me as nostalgic. Children who have been raised reading on Kindles and iPads will come to have the same favorable associations with their Kindles and iPads. Books are lovely, but they are more than that.

The digital revolution began with music, so it’s fitting to compare the explosion of e-books to the rise of the mp3. Music collectors have become accustomed to the constant changes from one medium to another: album to 8-track to cassette to CD. Most of us have owned the same album in duplicate forms, as we transitioned to the music player of the day. But a book needs no player, it is simple, sturdy, complete. They don’t require electricity or batteries or virus control or an upgrade to the latest operating system. The only operating system required is a mind that reads the language the book is written in. Books do become obsolete, when humans upgrade to a newer version of their spoken language. It took a lot longer to upgrade from Latin than it did to leave behind 8-track. A hundred years from now, will it be easier to find someone who can read Latin, or someone who owns a working 8-track player?

Books are artifacts. The aging of books is seen as a disadvantage, but I disagree. A digital reader rarely degrades gracefully. Either the file is perfect or it is unreadable. A book degrades slowly as its used. The spine creases where it has been opened repeatedly to the best part. It can be bookmarked with all manner of ephemera, from ticket stubs to old receipts from now-defunct businesses. Physical books can be signed, by authors but also by caring family members who give them as gifts. I know it is sacrilege to say so, but I even love when books have been highlighted and annotated.

My old annotated copy of Slaughterhouse Five has a note about another one of Vonnegutt's books, reminding me that I read Sirens of Titan before his more famous classic.
My old annotated copy of Slaughterhouse Five has a note about Sirens of Titan, reminding me I read it before his more famous classic.

This is probably because of the first book I ever annotated, Slaughterhouse Five. It was required for summer reading in high school. I’d never been given permission write in a book before, and to be commanded to do so felt like a tiny, nerdy rebellion. I took to it with gusto. All my life, I’d been part of the great conversation of literature. But for once, I was going to talk back. Years later, I reread Slaugherhouse Five and was as amused by my youthful annotation as by Vonnegut’s classic. Not because I’m as clever as Vonnegut, mind you! But because those comments were an intellectual snapshot of a teen girl. If I should have progeny of my own some day, I hope to give him this same copy of Slaughterhouse Five, with words circled I didn’t know and phrases underlined I thought clever. In the future, when our most brilliant thinkers die, what will we learn from their digital libraries? What notes, highlights and bookmarks will they contain?

Annotation of digital books is improving, but it is has a long way to go to match its physical counterpart. At a glance I can flip through a book and find a particular highlighted section, making a library a personalized reference collection. The notes of a digital book can be erased. In fact, the book itself can be erased, and all evidence of its existence destroyed. Sure, you can burn a book, or censor it. But you will still have a pile of ash, or a page with hidden words. That paper trail matters.

In this way, digital books are both more permanent and more intangible. Because a digital book doesn’t degrade, publishers must rig it with all manner of anti-theft trappings or it can be infinitely copied. These anti-theft efforts create their own backdoor to potential censorship. Because a physical book can be neither deleted nor duplicated, you know that it can always be shared, passed from person to person indefinitely. No update or system failure will erase its contents.

Tangible books: guaranteed to cause less eye strain than e-books

Because physical books are artifacts, you can collect them the way people collect bottles of wine. Unlike wine, the same book can be spent again and again. Most collected objects are meant to be left untouched, but books are meant to be interacted with. There are few forms of collecting more personal, more revealing of who a person is, than the books that line her shelves. When I visit someone’s home for the first time, I love to see their books. Even a single shelf is tremendously revealing: how is it organized? how much is fiction? Are the books cynical? Philosophical? Challenging or irresistible fluff? Foreign or familiar? Classic or modern? One person may show a preference for expensive coffee table books, another might have endless stacks of pulp fantasy novels. The possible permutations are as singular and complex as we are as individuals.

I’m sure some day we will have picture frames that cycle through the book covers in our digital libraries. And it’s wonderful that digital libraries can be kept private. But again, I want both. I like that owning a book is a commitment to the space it takes up. It’s like an idea in the shape of a brick. Through our libraries we announce who we are. The books we choose to keep are brags. We are bragging about the ideas we have collected. Have you ever had a conversation with someone on the train about the book they are carrying? I have. Or, have you ever ended up loaning a book to a friend, because they saw it on your shelf? These things only happen with tangible books. Digital books are invisible. Even if you never show your bookshelves to another living soul, you will see them. Their titles will be a daily reminder of your values and inclinations.

As it is now, there are 300,000 new titles published every year, just in the United States. And that doesn’t include self-published books. Nor does it include the 300,000 books published the year before that, and every year preceding. Books are more ubiquitous than ever. Surely in the future people will want to own less physical books. Print runs will get shorter, making them even more collector’s items than they are now. But that’s OK. The books we love the most, we will want to make them part of our lives. We will want to hold them, display them, share them. The space they take up is space set aside for ideas we love. There will always be room in our homes for that.

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