Solar Storms, Energy Shortages, and an Overloaded Internet…

… are three reasons why Margaret Atwood believes we should keep the paper book.

There’s a little bit of a spat going on in the comments of Margaret Atwood’s blog concerning the digitalization of books. While many people do fervently agree with Atwood’s reasoning (well, if they’re reading the blog they probably enjoy reading good literature and therefore probably appreciate books), people are accusing those against ebooks for not realizing the vital advantages of the cyberbook.

No one is contesting the advantages, convenience, and necessity of digitalizing information. With online text we can use Ctrl + F and access all the information of the world using a 1-5 pound laptop.  When it comes to books, the appeal of being able to download another form of media for free is too tantalizing, even for those who would prefer to read a physical book.

Atwood uses the reasons cited above as the pragmatic basis for the argument in support of books. Although these occurrences are unlikely and probably far from anyone’s list of immediate concerns, let’s see what does hit home. How many times have you accidentally scratched a CD, or come home to find your harddrive corrupted? Blue screen of death anyone? It doesn’t work quite the same for books They’re pretty durable– they can withstand many scratches and beatings, and I doubt anyone has come home to find that their book suddenly won’t open or the words have turned into some Wingdings jargon straight on the page.

I once took a telecommunications class in which we discussed data storage. Basically, the professor marveled at the simplicity, longevity, and vitality of paper– books have survived centuries, whereas accelerated aging studies of harddrives, CD’s, and processors have suggested that these devices will probably erode within decades. Granted the class is many years old, but the gist of it is that we currently have no proof that digital storage is reliable over even the course of a century. Also, when you see old CPU’s and monitors thrown out on the curbside or lining basement hallways, you don’t immediately assume that there will be loads of information waiting to be recycled; on the other hand, a box of old books waiting to be thrown out can be a real treasure.

While the “overloaded internet” is a poor argument, especially seeing as text files are among the smallest types of digital files, information doesn’t magically exist in thin air somewhere on the cybernet. It’s stored in servers (albeit very well-supported and large servers) and things can happen to them. However, as long as some copies have been disseminated into the world, a book will live on.

What I think book advocates are really concerned about is not preventing books from being sold digitally, but with protecting the paper book as a necessary art form. The physical book is a type of media, something more than just the words inside. True bibliophiles will probably tell you that the weight and feel of a book matters a lot for reading. There paperback vs. hardback, matte trades, mass paperbacks, heavy books, light books, books with ridged pages, different publishers and covers. There’s also the fact that a physical book makes a much better and more colorful present than an ebook over email.

Also, these ebooks and their paper screen technology. Why do we try so hard to imitate the real thing, when we can obtain it so easily? A Kindle is $200.  There are bookstores, whether large chain or independent, that would love some business, even if only for their cafes. Additionally, there are libraries, and the key word there is “free”.

And, sure, I’m biased. I have never made it to the end of an ebook, or for that matter, through the beginning. I simply cannot read on screen– short fiction is my limit. I also have an overwhelming affinity for collecting editions of books I love, which would explain my five editions of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, three editions (but 4 copies) of The Handmaid’s Tale, and double or triple of all my childhood favorites. Each edition feels different, and I even read differently based on which one.

Of course this is an argument you can spin however you want based on what side you’re on. It’s basically the paper towel versus electric heat dryer argument. But just keep in mind there are reasons why we have museums and antiques and libraries with rare book rooms.


14 thoughts on “Solar Storms, Energy Shortages, and an Overloaded Internet…”

  1. I doubt anyone has come home to find that their book suddenly won’t open or the words have turned into some Wingdings jargon straight on the page.
    Sounds like (dun dun dun) UBIK.

    What troubled me about the Atwood post was that I couldn’t quite tell to what extent she was being sarcastic. Some of her comments were clearly facetious, but her warnings were also presented in such an alarmist, vague (they felt half-researched to me, honestly) way that I feel like she simply opened herself to easy criticism and dismissal – and I’m a blithering defender of paper books.

    Generally, I do feel skeptical that paper will ever be entirely supplanted as a medium – I’m much more worried about the publishing industry, and about libraries and bookstores both new and used, especially since those latter three are actually at odds with one another in terms of what they’re accomplishing. Libraries extend literacy, but take away business from bookstores; shopping at used bookstores supports small business owners and keeps older books out of landfills, but diverts money that, if spent on new books, would at least infinitesimally be supporting living authors and publishing, etc. etc. (The only solution: get books EVERYWHERE YOU GO! mwa ha ha.)

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post, though. Lots of food for thought. Also I have a certain paranoid impulse now to print out everything that’s on my hard drive.

  2. Note: I’m super lazy and haven’t actually read Atwood’s post yet.

    While I’m (fairly obviously) a huge physical book supporter, I don’t personally feel that threatened by the e-book phenomenon. I guess I feel like a) the prohibitive cost of e-book readers will dampen enthusiasm (if I’m going to spend $200 on a book, I’ll buy a first edition or something), b) there are too many people out there who aren’t willing to give up the physical reading experience, and c) well, I don’t actually have a c.

    I am somewhat worried that the industries (publishing and selling) will over-react and try to go all digital, to keep up with the perceived market. But again, I do think that the people who crave the feeling of pages and spines, and favorite (sometimes awful) cover art represent a more sizable population that we might realize, and that sooner or later the industries will realize that.

    Or maybe I’m being overly optimistic. Eh. Anyway, my brother jokingly said he’d buy me a Kindle for Christmas and I told him, “Fine. I’ll resell it and use the money to buy BOOKS!” I kind of wish he had bought me one now.

  3. Oh, I knew there was another thought I was forgetting.

    For me, when I walk into someone else’s home, I generally make a bee-line for the bookshelves (while trying not to be too obvious and rude about it). They tell me something about the person–their interests, their reading habits, the way they treat their books. You can’t do that with e-books, because half of finding those things out has to do with how worn the covers are, how the books are stored and displayed and organized.

  4. Maureen E- LOL dont worry about it. Supa lazy is pretty damn hard to overcome.

    So, I failed to mention in my post that Atwood talked about an article predicting that in 5 years, 95% of book purchases will be ebooks. While I think that the statistic is totally unrealistic and is more likely a high number just to evoke a reaction out of the readers, there is some truth to it. 90% of the world are NOT readers and even many readers out there don’t appreciate the physical book. Plus, people are lazy. I think we’re talking about ebooks purchased for screen reading.. not just ebook reader reading, so it’s just the same price.

    I do think that right now the rpice of ebook technology is a huge obstacle, but that’s going to go down drastically in 5 years. While I’d love to be optimistic, bookstores are already suffering so much and the ebook is certainly not going to help things =/

    ill tell my kindle story another day ( yes, i own one, and no, i never use it, and yes, i want to sell it to buy more books)

  5. When I think of how many books I could buy for the price of a Kindle, I melt inside.

    Plus, people are lazy.
    This is the major determinant of… well, pretty much everything. Most people simply aren’t that invested in how words are delivered to them. Okay, I just lumped not-caringness in with laziness, which is neither fair nor always accurate, but… you get the point. And among the people who do care about print vs. digital, I’m guessing that a number of people who are defenders of print right now might not even care about it so much in the near future if all computer screens were to become easier on the eyes, like Kindle screens, on top of lowered prices and increased availability and ubiquity.

    That was all rather incoherent and disorganized, bah. I think the point that I was trying to make was that no matter how you look at it, people who are deeply attached to the physicality of the book are a minority. And sadly, I’m sure this will become increasingly true; it’s not that hard to imagine households in the near future in which children are raised predominantly with e-readers, simply because prices will have dropped sufficiently for a digital library to be more cost-effective than a physical one. Certainly I can think of several science-fiction stories in which the books were only read through the equivalent of e-readers.

    Maureen –
    For me, when I walk into someone else’s home, I generally make a bee-line for the bookshelves (while trying not to be too obvious and rude about it). They tell me something about the person–their interests, their reading habits, the way they treat their books.
    So, so true! Great observation. I always have to work not to be offended when people don’t pay attention to my bookshelves – it’s as if they ignored my children or something. ;P

  6. I’m back, now that I’ve actually read Atwood’s post. And I agree with Emera, she does sound fairly vague and alarmist.

    K–I hadn’t heard that projection. Sigh.

  7. I’ll admit to becoming less and less attached to print books- pdf textbooks are cheaper and easier* and walking just over a mile to pick up heavy amazon book packages is a bit of a pain. I’m lazy and I don’t care how I get my books so long as it’s cheap and convenient.
    I’m less of a “word” purist and more of a picture purist- I’ll read 400 page .pdfs on my monitor, but art-books must be enjoyed in print. Although art books aren’t the best example. Coffee-table books are collectibles, rather than consumables.

    On the subject of the Publishing industry, with the “rise” in ebooks, and ebook piracy. I’m wondering what the college text-book industry will do. Their only sure-fire way to keep the market stranglehold is to keep the printed books.

    * albeit 90% of the time illegally obtained.

  8. Emera, yes I’m now with you. Less alarmist and more scary! Also the clarification that she’s not just bashing e-books indiscriminately is a good one. And yes, that solar flare article is really freaky!

    As an aside, I kind of wanted to smack the “idiot” commenter. It’s true that Kindle screens are supposed to be better on your eyes, but there are some people (like myself) for whom that technology just doesn’t work.

  9. I’m doing my dissertation on digital fiction, so I have a feeling e-books will come up, at least as an aside.

    [puts on grad student hat]
    I’m skeptical of the whole e-book hysteria going around; it’s understandable, but I don’t think it’s founded on anything but fear (NB: I haven’t read the Atwood article either, being super lazy myself!) The codex (ie what we think of as print books) and e-readers are competing technologies, true. But as far as I can see the e-readers’ main advantages over print are 1) storage capability and 2) affordability. I think they’ll replace text books (especially science ones, that have to be updated all the time), simply because it’s more economical and efficient. But I don’t think they’ll replace the print codex mainly for the reasons you all have already pointed out: they’re not durable, and their storage advantage is undermined by the instability of digital formats, not to mention the major privacy/copyright issues that come up (as I understand it, at the moment you don’t really “own” any ebook you purchase the same way you do a print book—you simply lease the right to access it for a period of time).

    [doffs grad student hat]

    I just wish everyone would take a deep breath! It’s too soon to make any predictions or moral arguments. It’s not like film and TV replaced the theater, after all—they complement it. I think it’ll be much the same with e-readers.

  10. Anda
    I’ll read 400 page .pdfs on my monitor
    And for that, I salute you! I can’t stand reading for class on the computer, both because I don’t like reading on the computer screen for that long, and because I prefer being able to underline and scribble and so on.
    I do agree with both you and Andy, though, that textbooks via e-readers will likely become a much better option, and having shelled out over $300 for a single (also extremely heavy) textbook once, I definitely stand by the affordability & portability argument. And I’m sure that per customer demand, there’ll soon be more widespread ability to do the e-reader equivalent of dog-earing or sticky-noting pages and so on. Especially if tablets take off.

    And yes, that solar flare article is really freaky!
    Although I do wish they gave more of an idea of how concerned we should be about this relative to concerns about other potential disasters, rather than just seeding the article with a ton of quotes comparing it to Hurricane Katrina. But it’s certainly effective in raising public awareness of a larger threat of potentially immediate concern, I suppose.

    As an aside, I kind of wanted to smack the “idiot” commenter.
    People on the Internet always know more about your personal needs than you do. ;P

    It’s not like film and TV replaced the theater, after all—they complement it.
    Although hysteria about complete replacement is indeed unfounded at this point (though obviously I’m guilty of occasional bursts of paranoia, and general wibbling), I think the concerns about the kind of hit that the publishing and bookselling industries are going to take are legitimate. Given how hard it already is for booksellers that aren’t Barnes & Nobles or Amazon to survive, I think it’s inevitable that that trend will only accelerate, which makes me more than sad.

    I think your comparison to film/TV & theater is apt here. Although film & TV may not have replaced theater, they decreased its cultural prominence (obviously), and again, for reasons of accessibility and affordability. And not like theater ever guaranteed instant success and big bucks, but in the past few years, it’s been especially hard for new productions to stay afloat without having big-screen stars in them, and/or being based on outside media like films or popular musicians’ work. Which, hey, is a great way to adapt to and take advantage of people’s expectations, but one also worries about loss of representation of fresh talent and ideas. In the same way, every time an independent book store goes under, it represents a significant loss of history, character, and diversity. And, particularly since I’m an evolutionary biologist, loss of diversity in almost any situation inherently makes me nervous.

    /extended babble

    Are you covering The Girl Who Circumnavigated… in your dissertation? :)

  11. Emera—I’m definitely going to try to find a way to work it in! Essentially my diss is about looking at the effect that digital technology has on narrative: are works created using digital tech inherently different from traditional writing? Or is it just a different format, like hardback vs. paperback? If we can answer those questions, I think we’ll have a better idea of how e-books might impact the publishing world and literary culture.

    1. That sounds like a lot of fun! On what basis are you defining “inherently different”? How readers interact with them, whether the process of creation through a digital medium necessarily affects what is created…?
      And I wonder if people have considered webcomics from a similar perspective.

  12. It’s more about whether the potential for interactivity (hypertext, flash animation, game-like structures, etc) changes the nature of the narrative itself—-is digital fiction just books on computer, or a different beast altogether? So, a little of both, I guess—I haven’t started writing yet! I have no idea where it’s going to end up, so it’s going to be fun seeing what happens with this diss. It’ll mostly involve using lots of post-modern theory like Barthes, etc. I’m thinking I might look at The Girl Who… as an example of digital fiction that uses digital tech to enhance a traditional narrative, and contrast it with some of the more experimental stuff out there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *