Some people love ebook readers. They love the fact that they can have dozens or hundreds of books with them on a small device. With some of those gadgets, the power can last for days or weeks. You can order any book you want and have it immediately instead of going to a store or waiting for it to be shipped for you. That all sounds great. So why don’t I want one?
I’m thinking about this today because of a discussion that took place on my Facebook page Thursday morning. I posted a picture of a tongue-in-cheek display in a bookstore window. It listed the advantages of “real books” over ebooks, pointing out that they don’t need batteries or software upgrades. And so forth.
More than two dozen people quickly “liked” the picture, some just because they liked a clever promotion and some because they prefer “real books,” as I do. A few people chimed in to argue the superiority of ebooks, explaining that you can get PDFs of books and that you can carry lots of books with you, etc.
Here’s the thing. I understand the technical advantages of ebooks. It’s not that I’ve somehow missed the facts of how they work or what they’re capable of. I don’t need to be “educated” about them. It’s simply that other things matter more to me. For my needs and preferences, real books on real paper matter.
For me — and maybe for you — reading is a much deeper and more tactile experience than just scanning words on a screen. Yes, the words on the page matter a lot, but it’s much more. The feel of the paper matters. It’s a very sensory part of it. Different types of paper feel different and evoke different responses. A cheap paperback with coarse paper feels different — and produces different feelings — than the expensive paper of an leather-bound hardback. I like both, but I associate the two with very different things. And there are various other grades of paper with which I associate various other things.
The smell of the book matters. New books smell a certain way. Books you’ve had for awhile that haven’t been opened because they’ve been sitting on a your bookshelf smell different than when they were new. Older books — whether in a library or in a used bookshop — have yet another smell. It feels almost as though books are telling you who they are and what their stories are — their histories — when you pick them up and feel them and smell them.
When you spend years with these physical books, they’re not just collections of digital words. They feel like living beings that are alive. Every time I think about this, I think about Professor Faber trying to explain to Guy Montag why books were so important to him in “Fahrenheit 451.” If you can read that book and understand what Faber is saying about books, you’ll understand why I want my physical (and very imperfect) library.
I understand that ebook readers — either dedicated devices such as a Kindle or a general-purpose tablet such as an iPad — are useful at times. There are times when you just need searchable technical material. That’s important and it’s valuable sometimes. But it’s not what I really mean when I think of reading — the kind of reading that has come to mean so much to me over the years.
I love books. I love them for the ideas they contain and for the worlds they take me to. But I also love them for the tactile experience of reading them. I love what they physically have meant to me all of my life. I love how they remind me of reading under covers with a flashlight as a child when I was supposed to be asleep. I love how they remind me of the many paperback science fiction novels I tucked inside textbooks to read during classes. I love how they remind me of staying awake through the night many times — thinking over and over again that I’d read just one more chapter. And then another. And another. And another. I was too intoxicated by what I was reading to stop.
This is my experience with real books made out of paper and cloth and cardboard and ink — and I love it. And I love people who share my experience and understand the emotional connection I have to the paper and ink.
I understand why you might love your ebook reader. I don’t mind that. I’m not asking you to make my choice. But don’t think that I simply fail to understand how they work or what their advantages are. I do understand. But I understand something about my relationship with books that goes far deeper than my relationship with a tablet and touchscreen will ever go.
I love real books made of paper and ink for what they’ve meant to me. They’re my friends. I don’t want to give them up.