The other day I saw a book by the side of the road, and almost braked to a screeching halt to leap out and save it. Why? Well... because it was a book. I don't know what type of book it was, or whether it was a good book; my book-dragon instincts simply kicked in and proclaimed that a book shouldn't be lying, abandoned, by the side of the road.
Fortunately, another instinct also kicked in and reminded me that causing a three-car pile-up just to rescue a book was probably not a good idea. But the incident caused me to ruminate a bit (book dinosaurs ruminate; book dragons hoard) on why I, and so many others, feel this way about books.
My sister, for example, has been bemoaning her difficulty in getting rid of unwanted books. She has no used bookstore in town and they won't sell on Amazon. I'm not sure why she's reluctant to donate them so that they can move on to new, loving homes--but throwing them out is simply not an option in our family!
I don't feel this way about, say, teacups or clothing or furniture or even jewelry (though if I saw a diamond necklace by the side of the road, I'd probably stop; you can buy a lot of books for the price of a diamond!). I realize there are those who regard books as being in the same class as those other things--i.e., as simply things, nothing more. But I suspect many, if not most, of the readers of this column regard books much as I do: As treasures.
We don't treasure them for their intrinsic value--because they are rare first editions, or bound in leather, or autographed by someone famous. I suspect, indeed, that the books we treasure most are those in the worst condition--the ones with cracked spines and dog-eared pages and loose leaves lovingly restored with tape. You know, the ones we keep reading, over and over again.
What we treasure, I suspect, is not so much the book as the experience that book has brought us. Whether it's a world you visited, or people you met and couldn't forget, or ideas that exploded like fireworks in your brain, you have only to look at the book on your shelf to remember that experience--an experience that means far more than the physical object.
Simply put, booklovers regard books as the vessels that contain those experiences, those worlds, those beloved friends, those ideas. Such a view of books has been around for a very long time. In the Middle Ages, books were bound not just with leather but with gold and precious gems, not so much to make the book itself a thing of value as to celebrate the value it was perceived to contain (though, of course, the fact that only the rich could afford books probably had something to do with it). Manuscripts were illuminated not simply to enhance the words, but to call attention to how wonderful those words were thought to be.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the concept of banning books and burning books--which are purely symbolic actions. Burning a book doesn't destroy the ideas it contains; you can be pretty sure there's another copy somewhere, and someone will read it, and those ideas will live on. Banning a book practically guarantees that people will read it--if only to find out why it has been banned. Banning and burning are symbolic acts of hatred, just as fancy book-bindings are acts of love, directed toward the same vessel.
But if books are simply a vessel for ideas and experiences, does the vessel itself even matter? Here's where the dinosaur in me starts to rumble a bit anxiously. If only the words matter, why should books matter at all? Today, for the first time in the history of books, it's an easy matter to get the words without the book. The rise of e-books has caused plenty of pundits to declare that the "book" as we know it will soon be obsolete--and why not? Why should the vessel matter, if you can drink the wine without it?
Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me hasten to say that I have nothing against e-books. In fact, I find it a delicious irony that e-books make it possible to rediscover long-forgotten works that would otherwise languish in obscurity. (Think Project Gutenberg, just for starters.) I'm also delighted to learn that the new editions of two of my books will be available on Kindle. But I'm not sure I'm delighted to hear that Amazon now sells (or claims to sell) more Kindle editions than hardcover books (though given the relative prices, that's hardly a surprise).
There's no doubt that e-books offer a host of advantage, including cost, convenience, and the fact that nobody has to cut down any trees. But I can't help but wonder if e-books will bring about a change in how we view not just "books" but the contents of books. Put another way, will changing the vessel change how we view the contents of the vessel?
Consider just one change that e-books bring: Disposability. Those of us who grew up in book-loving households consider it nearly impossible to throw away or destroy a physical book. But an e-book? When I've finished reading it, I can delete it at the touch of a button--and I don't feel that I am "destroying" anything of value. This makes the contents of a book as transient as an unwanted e-mail.
In fact, it's about the only choice I have, which brings me to another change in how we regard books. When I finish a book I don't want to keep, I pass it on. I sell it, give it to a friend or relative, trade it in at a used bookstore, or donate it to a worthy cause. No matter which option I choose, that book moves on; it lives on. Every book I dispose of may pass through dozens of other hands--just as it may have passed through dozens of hands before it reached mine.
Not so with e-books! E-publishers don't want you to read the latest Mary Higgins Clark on Kindle and then give it to your sister or your best friend, or donate it to Goodwill. In fact, we're warned of dire consequences should we attempt such an "infringement"! This approach to "books" and "reading" represents a radical change from the way we have traditionally viewed books. It brings to an end the whole concept of sharing and giving books--something booklovers have practiced for centuries. Giving a Kindle or a gift card is not the same as passing a long a book that you feel certain someone else will enjoy.
It's far too soon to tell whether changing the "vessel" by which the words of a book are delivered will change how we perceive those words. But every change brings consequences as well as benefits. If words become something we can delete at the touch of a button, will they still hold their power? If we can no longer share our books, but are permitted, at best, to "recommend" them (being legally dissuaded from doing more than perusing those words on the privacy of our own screens), will that not make the act of reading an act of isolation rather than community?
I suppose my greatest concern here is that the day may come when publishers decide not to give us a choice. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that delivering words electronically costs a lot less than printing them out on paper and shipping them--and sadly, the only word with any power for a great many publishers is "profit." But while e-books can be a wonderful way to bring forgotten books back to life, or deliver new books at a fraction of the financial or environmental cost, one should also keep in mind that "longevity" is also an issue. We want to believe that the Internet is here to stay, but we also know that dot.coms can crash and burn in the blink of an eye--so what happens to all those resurrected books if Google or Project Gutenberg vanish, or to our Kindle editions if Amazon.com disappears? On a more dramatic note, if the world power grid fails, we'll be able to read e-books only as long as our Kindle batteries last--but we'll be able to read physical books as long as the sun remains in the sky.
And maybe that's precisely why book dinosaurs and book dragons like me just can't bring ourselves to throw a book away...
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