Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Book is Un-Dead

After the Scream Festival ended, I kept thinking about the premise of this year's events: The Book is Dead. It was a good and contentious topic around which to organize the festival, but one to which I say, hells nah!

Now, this isn't just my bibliophile automatic knee-jerk reaction to the idea of the death of the book. Books are dying--or rather, I would argue--being transformed in lots of ways: hypertexts, the Kindle, Audible, online journals, digital media, &c. But here are a list of my reasons, in no particular order, for why I think the book is un-dead (or in other words, immortal). Keep in mind that many of my book-related experiences are predicated on being an academic, which means that there are things that I find useful, lovely, or necessary about printed books that you might find superfluous:

1. You can write in books. Yes, I know that there are some annotation capabilities with the Kindle, but so much of my active reading is done with a pencil in hand, jotting notes, summaries, question marks, underlines, stars, arrows, and marginalia of all sorts. I'm huge on sticky notes and Post-It tabs, and I also write my name and the month and year of purchase in all of my books so that when I pick one up, I'm instantly reminded of when and why I purchased it. It also makes them handy to keep track of when I'm lending one to a friend, as he/she can't get away with pretending that it's his/hers. I'm also a big proponent of books as gifts, and I'm not willing to give up my ability to write a note inside the front cover. Or to have my books signed by the author. Is Margaret Atwood's long-pen Kindle-compatible?

2. Paratextual elements of books significantly contribute to their aesthetic and actual value. With electronic books, you can't get a sense of the production value of the book, and hence what its value is to the author, the publishing house, the market, and its intended readers. What is the paper quality like? Has it been printed in black and white, or four-colour? What is the binding like? Is it hardcover, or paperback? Does the paper have a texture, a weight, a colour? Are there inserts of other kinds of paper, like those in Christian Bok's Crystallography (an acetate overlay) or a. rawlings' Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (tissue for pressing plant or butterfly samples)? None of these things, which so inform the experience of holding, reading, assessing a book, are present in e-texts, which tend to make all of these things uniform. A book like Stephen Cain's American Standard/Canada Dry, with its lovely horizontally-ridged paper and stiff cover, has a much different physical effect than a mass-market paperback in terms of reading experience, which I would hate to lose.

3. The relationship between eyes and computers are like a summer-romance: fleeting and doomed to failure. I cannot, no matter how much I try, do any extensive reading on a computer. Part of it is my need to write on what I'm reading, but the other part is that reading e-texts is just not a comfortable experience. I don't have great eyesight (I wear glasses, and I have a condition called strabismus, which means that my eyes tend to focus independently on different things), and the visual clutter that attends most e-texts is intensely distracting for me. Even typing this entry in the frame that Blogger provides is difficult at times, especially with the blue and orange "Publish" and "Save" buttons standing out so vividly. Reading a book, however, is a highly enjoyable act that I can do for long periods of time without discomfort or strain. We have been taught from childhood how to read books, and as an ancient technology, I feel that our bodies have some cellular memory that allows us to respond to books in ways that we haven't yet learned to respond to books' electronic equivalent. That may come, but as of now, books win.

4. Books don't run out of batteries.

5. Books are sturdy. Yes, cheap mass-market paperbacks fall apart, but I can chuck a book in my purse for a ride on the bus, and it will largely be okay. I can get my book wet, and the pages might curl, but it will still be readable. I doubt the same could be said for a Kindle.

6. Books don't become unreadable in the glare of the sun.

7. Books are shareable. I can lend you a book. I can leave a book on a park bench or in a bus station for someone else to enjoy. I can sell my books to BMV or donate them to the library book sale. I can't do that with an e-text file, or at least not in the same ways, and not legally.

8. Books are decorative. I own a lot of books. Most of them are currently in boxes in my parents' garage (pending the transportation of my bookshelves from the apartment to here), but in my normal habitat, I am surrounded by books. At last count, I owned six bookshelves, which were all completely full, and I always have more library books scattered around on tables and desks (and this was in a one-bedroom apartment). I love it. I love being surrounded by books. I am determined that one day I will live somewhere with a proper library. E-books are not material. You can't look at a shelf of e-books with satisfaction. You can't colour-coordinate your e-books for easy visual recognition. You can't display e-books as art objects.

9. Books smell good.

10. Books force you to get out and explore. If I could get every book that I ever needed or wanted in an e-text version, I would have hardly any reason to leave the house, or get up from the computer, on days that I'm working. As it stands now, books force me to go many places: the public library, the university library, the other university library, the used-bookstore, the independent bookstore, the poetry bookstore, the big commercial bookstore. And I'm better for it. I experience new places, see new things, and don't spend all day sitting on my ass.

11. Books can be used as more than books. They can be used as pedestals for beautiful objects. They can be used as doorstops. They can be used as stepstools. They can be nailed into stairs (Hana in The English Patient). They can be used as fans, as umbrellas, as disguises, as identifiers (the woman waiting for a blind date reading Pride & Prejudice and holding a red-rose), as tools of fate (Serendipity), as conversation-starters, as barricades, as safes, as memory boxes (Klein's "Heirloom"). A Kindle is only ever a Kindle.

12. Books aren't just for reading (in); they're also for writing in. Is the notebook dead? It better not be.

I'll leave it at a round dozen. I'm sure that there are many more reasons I could give for my argument that the book isn't dead, and won't be for a long time, or may not ever be. I'd love to hear some of yours, or your counter arguments. Why do you think the book is dead, or is heading that way, or should be going the way of the dodo? Or why do you love books as much as/differently than/more than I do?