Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

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?