I realize this may seem an unusual premise, coming from an author whose website is festooned with links to ebooks on Amazon, and who has, in the past, even used this blog to herald the new era of digital reading as a glistening opportunity for independent authors. But lately my research has led to some very different conclusions. I think it’s important to attempt, at least, to understand the historical tides in which we are caught up; not merely to be borne along, but to navigate those waters by exercising discernment and choosing deliberately whether or not we will participate in the novelties our culture celebrates. What follows are, in my opinion, five good reasons why ebooks will forever be inferior to “real” ink and paper books.
1. The Beauty of Accidental Discovery
Personally, I wouldn’t have become an ardent reader and lover of books—much less a writer and maker of books—if I hadn’t grown up wandering a house well-stocked with wooden bookshelves and ink and paper books: mysterious volumes with colorful spines and unpronounceable titles that held real, tactile fascination for me as a child. The presence of books gave me a sense of the depth and breadth of human knowledge as yet unknown to me, and it was, in part, that sense of the world beyond that drew me, irresistibly, into reading and learning.
How could a digital library—even the floating, finger-flickable book covers of a high-definition reader—compete with such an experience? They simply can not. They present no texture, no leather embossments to curious fingers or aromas of parchment to the inquisitive mind. No doubt generations of existing readers will go on reading, adopting ebooks here and there as a convenient alternative to print books, but what of the generations to come? What of the toddler sitting in the floor entranced with his parent’s iPad? It is, of course, the colorful animated apps and games, the movement and sound of video that captures his senses. What is a digital book to him but a flat and inscrutable image? To a child, as Jean-Louis Costanza’s viral You-Tube video demonstrates, “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work.”
For that matter, how are adults actually using their tablet PCs? Are we really more likely to read books on a device capable of streaming live video and displaying large images in high-definition? The greater likelihood seems to be the course of least resistance, that just as the omnipresence of television has supplanted much of our culture’s reading of periodicals and books, so, too, will a device that is essentially a portable television wind up—big surprise—being used as one. If you serve a child ice cream and asparagus on the same plate, which is more likely to be consumed? Let’s be real.
2. Engaging the Senses
I wish I could become a sommelier of books, whiffing the aroma of leather spines and real clothcovers and cotton and ink pages until I could, by scent alone, tell you the region and vintage of a fine edition. (Sidenote: find out what causes that “old book smell” here.) Real books are a bouquet for all but one of the senses: taste, which we relate to books only as a matter of literary judgment. (Although an exception must be made for a certain Labrador I will mention later.) We are admonished by the old maxim not to judge a book by its cover precisely because their physical properties and appearance offer us so many clues to interpret their meaning. Here is a volume that rests mightily in the hand. Is it a ponderous work and exhaustive? There is a slender volume of poetry, embossed with gilded scrollwork. Might it be a work of exquisite literary elegance? While none of these suggestions may prove true, they nonetheless add significant detail to the human experience of a book.
Interestingly, we humans seem to perform better with more, not less stimulation of the senses, particularly with regard to the retention necessary for learning. Studies already suggest that we learn more readily from real books than their digital kin, that without the tactile qualities of the printed page and a physical sense of location within the book—near the front or the back? On the right page or the left?—our minds have less places to “hang” memories. We are more likely to remember what we learned if we remember where we learned it, an association that a digital book—with perhaps one hundred thousand screens and no more than a slider bar to indicate our position—is far less likely to provide.
3. Durability versus Vulnerability
Resting beside me is the book I’m currently reading: a hardback edition of Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand. This particular copy is unique because an enthusiastic Labrador named Mossberg made an honest attempt to eat it. The corner of the frontispiece has been gnawed away, the remaining cover is pocked with the indentations of powerful incisors, and even the uppermost part of the spine has been eaten, where the binding must have added a delectable note of savory glue. And yet the book still functions flawlessly. I defy you to show me an electronic reader or a tablet PC that could go toe to toe with a slavering Labrador and still serve its purpose.
More seriously, our culture’s fascination with all things digital is not just a tendency to celebrate aesthetically poor substitutes for real books, but a dangerous trend that favors centralization and totalitarianism. Think I’m being paranoid? Consider this: In 2009, Amazon’s team of lawyers realized the company didn’t quite have the legal rights to sell electronic copies of George Orwell’s book, 1984. (Ironic, right?) So one night they simply remotely deleted it from everyone’s Kindles and refunded the cost of their purchase. Just a click and it was gone. Quite apart from the violated licensing agreement between buyer and seller in such a scenario is the more interesting vulnerability of ebooks to these kinds of centralized decisions. Who’s to say that the government of the future (already beginning to issue restrictions and exercise control over much of the internet) won’t decide to censor, ban, or remotely delete ebooks it deems offensive or declares illegal? What about the growing threat of cyberattacks that deliver hard drive-wiping digital amnesia to whole networks of computers? Or the disastrous potential of an electromagnetic pulse or solar flare, or energy crises and disruptions in electric power? Is the future going to be safe enough to depend entirely upon electronic books? Maybe I’m just a stuffy old curmudgeon that has read too many dystopian novels, but I have my doubts.
While we’re on the topic of permanence, what happens to ebooks once they are read? They are, of course, stored or in some “cloud,” or on the device’s hard drive, out of sight for the most part until they are deleted to free available memory or discarded along with outdated hardware. But consider the rich afterlives of real books: passed down as heirlooms or discovered again in used bookshops, continents removed from their origin. Think of the accumulated humanity of notes handwritten in the margins, their significance become historical, or the cursive inscriptions on the frontispiece of a gift book, mysterious now as words on an unknown tombstone, but the volume alive still, ready to speak to us despite the decades it has lain waiting. But an ebook? An ebook is a digital file that knows nothing of aging, of yellowing pages and spines lovingly taped back together, of autumn leaves pressed between chapters and oils of human hands wicked into the page. An ebook is only a flash in the slipstream of the digital world, alive only so long as it occupies the screen before our eyes, a chimera on the continual life support of batteries and fragile electronic chips and incompatible power cords—mishandled, crashed, gone.
4. Ebooks have Devalued Books
Digital books have made an almost schizophrenic appeal to consumers, boasting, on the one hand, to deliver the exact same information as physical books, but doing so in such an easy and intangible manner that consumers are outraged and even shocked when they find ebooks priced as much or more than trade paperbacks. Publishers, for a time, attempted to keep ebook prices prohibitively high so as to continue to sell print books; this was, after all, their specialty and the source of their most significant profit. But Amazon touched off a series of price wars when they unveiled the Kindle in 2006, initially offering all ebooks for $9.99, and the onslaught of self-publishing authors competing, as though in a blood sport, for readers inadvertently dragged the perceived value of ebooks even lower by offering books at $2.99, $0.99, and often giving away their titles absolutely free in order to gain a following.
To compensate for the low prices and slim profits, prolific self-publishers like Joe Konrath advised quickly churning out title after title to increase an author’s visibility on the digital bookshelf, and thus the overall number of books one would likely sell. Genre fiction writers with dozens of hastily-written, unpublished manuscripts benefited the most, and the disposability of ebooks seemed to perfect what the paperback had once accomplished: delivering stories to readers as cost-effectively as possible, with no necessity of lasting beyond one reading, the spine creased in white lines and the thin pages wrinkled, afterwards exiled to bedside tables in guest bedrooms or given away. Ebooks appear and vanish even more readily.
In terms of basic economics, the abundance of supply, without a significant increase in demand, had driven the price of books very low. The publishing industry had, at this point, fallen very far from the $26 hard cover editions that were once its mainstay. The market share of print books, will, if current trends continue, go the way of vinyl records, shrinking at the same rate that new technology advances, until it becomes a niche market of high-priced collectables and print-on-demand titles, never produced at any risk to the publisher, and never returned, unsold, from a bookstore.
5. The Demise of Human Industry
What appeared, on its face, to be a boon to consumers has had far-reaching implications for the perceived value—not just of ink and paper books as an outmoded technology—but of literature in the broader sense of worthwhile human creation. What should the value of a book be—a manuscript over which an author has toiled, perhaps for years, writing draft after draft, and which an agent has struggled to sell, contacting dozens of publishing houses, at which editors and proofreaders have labored to perfect, after which layout artists and jacket designers have worked to make pleasing to the eye, the finished product of which publicists have celebrated and bookstores have shelved by hand and proudly recommended? The unfortunate consequence of the low aesthetic quality of ebooks has been to debase all books, in the eyes of consumers, to the level of mass entertainment.
Disappearing along with the profit margins of the traditional publishing industry are the viable roles of human beings as booksellers. Not coincidentally, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos set up a laboratory for the creation of the ultimate e-reader in 2004, he told the tech wizards that would invent the Kindle to “Proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.” Ten years later, it appears they may have succeeded, as more than half the independent bookstores in the United States have already closed, dropping from 4,000 to less than 2,000, and even major bookstore chains such as Borders, Books-A-Million, and Barnes and Noble are succumbing to extinction one by one.
Is the future an irresistibly electronic one, manned by bots and algorithms instead of literary agents and human booksellers? Is Amazon, as it claims, only delivering what is, inescapably, the future and fate of books? Or is it bullying the publishing industry into submission for the sake of staggering profits? An honest look at the history of Amazon’s business practices seems to suggest the latter.
The true meaning of ebooks for our culture depends upon our philosophy of technological advancement. Are we at the mercy of our own imaginations? Is everything that is possible, in fact, what ought to be done? Americans have, as a people, typically advanced so quickly and adapted so readily to new technology that we seldom pause to consider whether our advancements are really improvements, and what might be lost in the exchange of an old method for a newer, more convenient one. Only later, after negative ramifications of new technology become impossible to ignore, do we regret our impertinence and take half-hearted measures to reverse it. (Think pollution, cancer, e coli, dependence on foreign oil, genetically modified organisms, eugenics, abortive contraception, and internet pornography, to name a few.)
Sadly, without a well-considered allegiance to what is good, true, and beautiful in our culture, we will, as a race, only continue to be sucked along the way of alleged Progress, the shiny new machinery of which is, in never-ending versions and updates, dangled before our awestruck faces by hucksters and profiteers intent on milking every last drop of disposable income from an increasingly bovine herd of thoughtless consumers. Caveat emptor, indeed, for it has proven true in our age that the products buyers purchase do not so much define the buyers themselves as they do the world in which they live.