The Brave New World of Electronic Books

| 12/21/2010 9:26:36 AM

A photo of Shannon Saia When I was in my early twenties, there was a lot of noise being made about electronic books, and the inevitable obsolescence of printed literature. As a writer and a lifelong lover of books, this was an argument in which I took some interest. I was firmly on the side of the book-as-physical-object, generations old, perhaps, with yellowing pages that smelled vaguely of custard and dust. In fact I own a few books that I keep specifically for their physical incarnations. I am thinking of one old copy of Sinclair Lewis’ Cass Timberlane, a hardcover with slightly odd dimensions, a fine binding and a pleasurable heft. Many years ago, Mr. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, wrote an editorial (or was it an Op-Ed? It was a long time ago…) that was essentially pro-electronic book. I was so moved by it that I wrote him a letter (by hand, on a yellow legal pad, in my occasionally illegible handwriting) defending the book-as-physical-object, and expressing my surprise, given his other writings, that he would be heralding the coming of the electronic book in any kind of positive light. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I’m sure that the letter was full of youthful, enthusiastic and passionate ignorance, since I didn’t know a doggone thing about electronic books, and I only knew a little (from the outside) about the publishing industry.

To my great surprise and delight, he wrote me back. It was a short, typed (on a typewriter!) note on his professional stationary and I still have it to this day, though I’m not able to put my hands on it at the moment. But it said something like this: “Perhaps there was in that piece an attempt not to be, once again, a curmudgeon stuck predictably in the past … we must learn to bear with and embrace the brave new world that awaits us, lest we lose all influence over how it evolves.”


I’ve thought of these words often over the years. They strike me as particularly wise. And yet, I was then and I am now usually quite behind the times. My family didn’t get our first color television until I was in middle school, and that was a resisted – and perhaps even partially resented – gift. Fast forward 10, 15, 20 years and you’ll see me as a young woman, only vaguely aware of the Internet that was already rapidly changing the world. My first e-mail account was set up, and paid for, by my father, who always advances into the brave new technological world far ahead of me. I argued with my husband about how unnecessary it was to get the DVD player and the TIVO (and even the toaster oven, but that’s another story). I only got a cell phone when it became absolutely necessary for work, and I don’t use it if I can help it. You might say that I’ve been kind of drug along into the modern world, kicking and screaming, every step of the way. So it’s probably not surprising that it has taken fifteen years since I wrote that letter to Mr. Yardley and received that sage advice in return for me to finally become the proud owner of an electronic reading device (ERD).

* * * * *

I have always been an avid reader. Even as a kid I did not so much read a book as devour it. Living in Europe as a child, with a small black and white television on which very little was available in English, I read a lot. We made frequent trips to the library, and I could get through two novels in a weekend and be left with time on my hands, wanting more. And I am still that way. Perhaps one of the things that I love about the world inside of a book – any book – is that it doesn’t change; it’s always there for you just the way that you love it. Inside the world of stories, struggle has a meaning that you can grasp. Endings are (usually) inevitable and satisfying. There are endings – which is one of the reasons that meaning is accessible in the first place. Literary characters to me are old and dear friends – Rumpole, Sherlock Holmes, the Famous Five – and places – London, Zenith, a stark, snowy landscape in Russia – that I can visit from time to time. Are any of these things more or less there electronically than they are in print? I mean, isn’t a book essentially what takes shape inside of us when we read it? And if so, what difference does it make whether we read it on paper or on some kind of screen? To what extent is a book its method of delivery of the words that comprise it? An argument could be made, I think, that the part of the book that matters, what you actually read, could just as well be beamed brain to brain without the intervening hoopla of author photos and endorsements and plot summarizing teaser paragraphs on the back cover. And to the extent that reading is distilled to feeling like direct communication from an author about whom I have had no opportunity to form any superficial prejudices, I have discovered that I like reading electronic versions of books. Plus, the ERD is attractive – handsome, even. It’s convenient. It’s light. I can take an entire library with me in my purse.

S.M.R. Saia
12/29/2010 7:01:24 AM

Cindy and Dave, thanks so much for coming by. Dave, your technology memory is the same as mine. And yes, I forgive you for calling me Susan! :0)

Cindy Murphy
12/22/2010 12:08:59 PM

Hey, Shannon! I'm glad to see a blog from you - I've missed the insight and wisdom your blogs always offer. I tackled this same topic (much less eloquently) a couple of years ago here....and am still a hold-out. Hubs asked me if I wanted a Kindle for Christmas, and I just can't bring myself to take the plunge yet. I'm a technological heel-dragger, I admit. It's more than that's the tactical, personal, and even community experience of reading and sharing paper books I'd miss with an e-book. I can't imagine not walking to the library or my favorite used bookstore, browsing the shelves, picking up this and that, and thumbing through the pages, for hours sometimes. Or running into a friend and sitting in the aisle, laughing over passages of whatever book we pluck off the shelf until we get shhhhed by the library lady like she's scolding a couple of kids. Maybe that's part of my problem...I never grew up. 'Til then...or at least for the time being because I don't think I'll ever grow up, it's paper for me. Thanks for another insightful article. Have a great Holiday Season.

Nebraska Dave
12/22/2010 10:18:26 AM

Shannon, so sorry about calling you Susan all the time. You just look like someone I know that's Susan. Forgive me?

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