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Once Upon a Time, Between the Pages of a Book

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: books, digital readers,

Once upon a time, there were no computers, and no Internet. Remember going to the library to look up information? Remember first digging through the card catalog to find out where to look for that information?

Remember libraries? And books?

Computer technology certainly has made things quicker and easier. I can't count how many times I’ve searched the Internet in the last week seeking blurbs of information, most of which has no use except to satisfy my curiosity. But what if technology were the demise of things like books with actual pages to turn, and libraries to hold them?

My friend received a Sony Digital Reader this Christmas. Completely portable, it's a small thing about the size of an average address book, but can hold up to 160 e-books. It also has an MP3 player, so she can listen to music while she reads – all with the same gadget. All she has to do is go to an e-book website – many of the books offered are free, and download what ever looks good to her. Ta-da! She’s got a virtual library at her fingertips. It looks so simple that even the technically inept, such as myself, can easily use one.

It's all very cool and hi-tech … and sterile. There is something to me that seems so comforting about turning the well-worn pages of a book. I watched as she explained how it worked, and it made me want to read a real book … feeling the weight of it resting in my lap, the stiff paper under my fingertips … feeling the tangible substance of it.

I posted the topic on a message board I belong to, and the responses that followed I found interesting.

One woman says, “I prefer the actual book to an e-book. However, I look at all the books I have cluttering up space that could be used for other things if I had them all on an e-book reader instead … and e-books are cheaper than hard-covers and paperbacks (for the most part).”

She went on to explain that she recently saw Amazon’s “Kindle” featured on Oprah and yearned for one, but is currently holding out. E-book readers are relatively new for the most part. According to Wikipedia, there were a few devices developed early in this decade, which are now discontinued, but Sony’s Digital Reader hit the market in 2006, and Amazon’s Kindle followed in 2007. Like all new technology, once it’s not so new any more, the price becomes more affordable. “When the price is more reasonable, I'll seriously consider getting one. Until then, I'm sticking with books, and cramming them into storage boxes and stuffing them into closets,” she says.

Well-loved books on a shelfI look at the over-flowing book shelf next to my desk, the one across the room, the one in the living room ... the stack of books threatening to topple over on my desk, and I think less clutter would be nice. Less clutter … less paper in landfills … less raw materials used. Although many books seem to be made of recycled product, I wonder what the environmental impact would be going to paper-less books. But the paper industry supports how many jobs? There'd be economical impact as well. Then there are the printers, bookbinders, publishers, and booksellers – would these time-honored careers be lost due to progress?

A man from England writes, “I'd never really given e-readers a thought. I was raised with books, and libraries were a valuable and big part of my life. Now you've gone and waved a gadget at me. Ahhhh, why did you have to do that? They do look interesting though, don't they?

“I think I would probably wait for the bugs to be ironed out, and even then I would be selective about what I read from on it. The real concern I think, is that the cheaper they become, the more people would buy them rather than 'real' books. I remember some years ago, the music stores said they would continue to supply vinyl for people that preferred it. Now you can't find a single store that supplies it.

“One of my favourite stores closed last year. It was a second-hand bookshop in Maldon, Essex. I spent many hours, and pounds, in there over the years. The owner, however, couldn't continue with the high overheads of a shop when he was selling far more stock from his internet site. It's a sad sign of the times, but at least he's still selling the 'real thing.'”

His wife adds, “I think it would be criminal if the youngsters of today relied on e-books … the younger generation would grow up and not even know what a book is (or was!), what it feels like to hold and smell a book (yes they do have a distinctive smell)!

“It is a very good idea for people who cannot get out and about and love reading, but let's not encourage the young to spend more and more time in front of the computers! Sorry if that sounds a bit harsh, but I feel that the young spend too much time as it is in front of one screen or another!”

My daughters have little idea what a vinyl record is – Shelby, my teenager, said she’d seen them in movies a couple of times. Will books go the way of vinyl records? How sad to think that future generations – perhaps even that of my daughters’ children – would only know what a book is from what they’ve seen in movies, or housed behind glass cases in museums.

This comment echoes my own feelings:

“There are obviously things I love about computers. But I'm very old-school in many ways, and books are one of my old-school stand-bys. There is something comforting about revisiting a well-loved old book. I never catch an airplane that there isn't a Sue Grafton mystery in my backpack. There's always a book (usually one of Sue's) in my overnight bag. And my garage is stacked with books I haven't touched in awhile, but can't bear to part with. An e-reader just couldn't have the same comforting qualities that a worn, often-read book has.

“I have the same worry about e-books as I do about mp3s – there is no way that every book will be available, especially the obscure ones. And many of my favorites are obscure titles. I have several photography books, too ... an e-reader can't do them justice.”

Amazon’s website describes the Kindle as “the future of book reading. It will be everywhere." It’s inevitable. But I am a heel-dragger when it comes to change. The message board’s on-going thread in which I posted this topic is titled “Commonplace Rarities” – things that were once very common, but now are considered quite rare. I imagine libraries in the near future will be multi-media centers housing more computers and electronic reading materials than actual books, and already I’m nostalgic for a time when I could get lost within the pages of a book.

How do you feel?

cindy murphy
2/23/2009 8:31:10 AM

Thanks, Kathy. Your career sounds extremely interesting. And I find it interesting too, the things people leave behind in books. Dog-eared pages, underlined passages, and handwritten notes in the margins...don't you sometimes wonder the about the stories behind them; what reason did someone find them so interesting as to mark them. I love old books, especially botanicals, and dictionaries; I can't seem to resist them when I see one at the used book store. One of the most puzzling handwritten notations is in a 1919 copy of Webster's Handy Condensed Dictionary. In the table of "Average Velocity of Various Bodies" this is starred and underlined: A man walks 3 miles per hour, or 4 feet per second. Why would someone make a notation of such a thing? Practicing to get it right, maybe? Another thing I've wondered about ebooks, is how you'd share them? By lending out memory-sticks? Wouldn't that leave the owner book-less for awhile. You know those well-loved books just have to be lent out to friends, sometimes making a circuit who-knows-how-big before they find their way back to their owners. It's part of the joy of reading books, I think - "Oh! You gotta read this!" while shoving the book into a friend's hand. There's a whole movement involving the two ideas - leaving notions in the margin, and sharing books. I believe it's called book-hopping. People read a book, write a comment on the inside cover, then leave the book in a public place such as a cafe, subway, or bus stop, for someone else to pick up and do the same. Cool idea, I think.

kathy turcotte
2/21/2009 10:55:18 PM

Great article! As a kid, I was probably one of the weird ones who enjoyed getting brand new books - savoring the smell of them, and pencils - nice fresh pencils -real pencils that could be sharpened to a sharp point - I was even excited about the scent of pencil shavings - a real nerdy kid! Books have my life - I review them and I freelance write which means you have to do a lot of research (the part I love best about writing) and research means books are needed. Granted, some research can be done online, but I prefer to sit with a book and/or carry a book with me to take notes from or 'oh heavens' highlight a section with a highligter pen - something I thought I would never resort to, by my 49 year old memory is not what it used to be! When I was reviewing books, I used to hate getting assigned an ebook. Now, my eyesight is not the greatest and I did not garner much joy from having to read sitting in front of my computer - if I printed out the ebook, then there is the cost involved for paper and printer ink. Give me a good old fashioned book - my house is practically overflowing with them. When I had to work from home, I started an online bookselling business that is still up and running today. All the more reason for me to prowl through the used bookstores and Goodwill and thrift shops. Treasure can be found in used books - I found a copy of Harry Truman's memoirs (signed by Truman himself) in a thrift shop for twenty cents and sold it for over $300 on Ebay. This sort of thing does not happen everyday, but it does happen. And sometimes, it is the tidbits of other peoples lives you find in books, a bookmark, a special notation, a letter or a ticket stub - all the things that make me wonder about the person who originally owned the book. The growing pile next to my bed both beckons me and threatens me all at the same time - a myriad of good books lure me to read a little of each before I go to sleep, but one pull of a book the wrong way - kinda like

cindy murphy
1/26/2009 6:31:12 PM

Hey, Iggy. It was a coincidence that I wrote this blog, and just this weekend listened to a woman at the library read a short story she wrote about the same subject...but much more eloquently told. She refered to reading as "her guilty pleasure", stealing moments with her nose in a book whenever she got the chance. She mentioned Sony and Kindle's e-readers too, saying how she'd miss the feel and smell of a real book. I'm surprized how many people mention they'd miss that scent. I'm surprized too, that there is all this nostalgia for something that is still around in so much abundance. I completely understand it, because I feel the same way - but still, in such a technological age, I think it's interesting how sentimental nearly everyone I've spoken to on the subject gets. Maybe all the e-book junkies are just sitting back laughing at us sentimental fools.

michelle house
1/25/2009 6:28:30 PM

Loved this article. I like going into a used bookstore, and the smell is like the libraries of my childhood. Dusty and kinda musty, but brings back some wonderful memories... I like books, and I don't know about e books, it would just not be the same Iggy

cindy murphy
1/23/2009 8:46:13 AM

A friend mine brought to my attention an article that appeared Wednesday on Time's website: "Books Unbound", by Chris Jackson-Getty. It provides an interesting look at where the publishing industry is today, and possibly where it will take us in the future. Here's an excerpt: "A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done..... ....shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century. Novels are getting restless, shrugging off their expensive papery husks and transmigrating digitally into other forms. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon's Kindle have gained devoted followings. Google has scanned more than 7 million books into its online database; the plan is to scan them all, every single one, within 10 years. Writers podcast their books and post them, chapter by chapter, on blogs. Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones. Compared with the time and cost of replicating a digital file and shipping it around the world--i.e., zero and nothing--printing books on paper feels a little Paleolithic." The link to the complete article is:,9171,1873122,00.html

cindy murphy
1/13/2009 8:30:26 AM

Hi, Lori. Thanks for your comments. I can't imagine if books hadn't been a part of my daughters' younger years - the kind of books they could "read" themselves by turning the pages and looking at the pictures; the kind of books they loved to much that they were dragged around everywhere with them, even to bed. Many of these favorite books made it through both girls' toddler years - the classic, "Goodnight Moon", in "board-book" form is a good example that I read so many times, I could recite it by heart by the time Shannon, my second child, picked it up, and started dragging it around the house. Though it's heavy pages are worn, drool-stained, and teething marked, it still remains on a bookshelf as a childhood keepsake. And chewing on a computer just doesn't provide the same teething relief as a heavy-duty page that reads "In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of...."

1/13/2009 5:54:36 AM

Cindy, I can't imagine sitting down with a child to read a story without having actual pages for that child to turn, and large size pictures for them to point to! It just isn't the same! As for myself, It wouldn't feel right to snuggle up with a warm throw, a hot cup of coffee and a It just doesn't have that cozy feeling! I agree it could help solve some clutter problems, but I'm afraid I will have to stay old school on this one! Maybe some day all books will be considered antiques, and worth money for certain collections!