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.