“Books, that paper memory of mankind.”

Culture, Writing

“Books, that paper memory of mankind.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Sometimes when I’m at a loss for words, or stuck for some kind of inspiration, or just when I’m being willfully distracted from some tedious task, I walk over to my bookshelves and idly peruse them – running my fingers across the spines, pulling one out a bit by the top corner, then pushing it back in, making sure they’re lined up nicely and randomly pulling one or two down to read the first page, or maybe the last.

Sometimes I even get a whiff of its scent and I stick my nose in before quickly shutting it close, lest I waste what I assume must be a limited amount of that precious aroma; good books smell like time past, and what can smell better than our own pasts, eroded down to encapsulated moments void of any unattractive context?

If I’m lucky, I’ll remember when and where I read that book, or even that page. You know how Ashton Kutcher’s character in The Butterfly Effect was able to time travel by reading his old journals? It’s kind of like that.

When I pick up my copy of Anne of Green Gables, I remember exactly when and where I was when I got it. I was 10, and I bought it – with money my mother gave me, of course – at a Scholastic book sale in the school library. According to the front cover, it cost $3.25 Cdn. It also still has the red Clifford the Big Red Dog stamp on the inside cover.

It wasn’t the first novel I ever bought, though. The first one was called Mad, Mad Monday by Herma Silverstein; it was about a teenage girl who conjures up the ghost of a dead jock named Monday when her loves spell goes awry. It says “Zalina Alvi Grade 2 Mkay Room 6.” I love imagining my seven-year-old self reading that book – almost as much as I love seeing my sister’s name crossed out and replaced with mine on the front cover of R.L. Stine’s Beach House. The tagline on the back reads “Swim. Sunbathe. Die.” Good times.

The nostalgia-sentiment tag team will get you every time.

So, when I say I hope that e-books don’t replace ink-and-paper books, you’ll know that my opinion is not devoid of sentiment. I’d wager that at least 50% of all arguments against e-books are fueled by nostalgia and sentiment.

Back in October 2009, Roger Ebert wrote a loving blog post about his life surrounded by books (and a general inability to get rid of ANYTHING that I feel borders onĀ Hoarders-worthy). I appreciate his affection for what the physicality of three-dimensional, real-life books add to a life and a sense of home. The way he describes his books and his memories of procuring them makes me think of someone leaving breadcrumbs throughout their life, or – care for a more modern metaphor, Mr. Ebert? – like a save point in a video game.

On the day he linked to that blog post on Twitter, he went on to tweet a wide assortment of almost paradoxical scenarios that very clearly – and cleverly – demonstrate his disdain for e-books and his affection for traditional books. If you check his Twitter feed, you can find all of them by scrolling down to Aug. 14, but here are a couple of really good ones:

I got this H. P. Lovecraft e-book remaindered for $1. It’s had a sorta peculiar mortuary smell to this day.

We only met in the first place because she spotted the cover of the e-book I was reading across the aisle on the train.

My mom’s boss gave me this e-book of “The Swiss Family Robinson” when I was 7. Ostrich riding!

They express exactly why books have so much value for those who love them. I would hate to live in a world where I couldn’t lend a lovingly dog-eared book to a friend, or hand it down to my kids. Books add life and personality to a room. They give your eyes a place to wander, reflect and daydream. I still remember my grade 3 teacher giving me a copy of The Callendar Papers by Cynthia Voigt because she wanted to challenge me. Could that have happened in a world of e-books?

Maybe we’re just unwilling to let go.

But for all the advantages of “real” books, they are just that – advantages, not necessities. I wonder if this is just one of those inevitable transitional periods in history when technology – and her advocates – want to advance to a new medium, gadget or way of doing things, while some of us want to hang on to the things we love and the way we love doing things.

According to my Apocalyptic Science Fiction professor at York, E.M. Forster wrote his (fantastic!) sci-fi tale “The Machine Stops” (you can read the whole thing with that link) in 1909 in response to a crazy new fad called the telephone. In the story – at more than 12,000 words, perhaps “novella” is a better term? – people live underground in an all-encompassing, life-providing machine and only communicate with each other through round “plates” that “began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.” In the story, people have devolved into useless blobs who can’t stand direct contact with each other, and who never venture into the outside world.

Scary, isn’t it?

But you can’t help but think that Forster may have overreacted a bit. I liken the whole thing to how journalists mourn the demise of the print newspaper. I know that moving into an exclusively online news world isn’t just about paper vs. screens. Changing the medium changes the way the news is delivered, and the way it’s created. Forcing journalists and editors to produce stories every 10 minutes around the clock changes the game in every way – including putting a strain on the patience that good reporting requires.

But, at the same time, I can’t help but think it’s worth letting go of more traditional ways of doing things if we can save resources – paper, water, power – by putting them online. Perhaps it’s just a matter of weighing the pros and cons – and sentimentality doesn’t weigh a whole lot.

A little from column A; a little from column B.

So where do books fall into this debate? What are we really losing by replacing them by e-books that don’t require paper, trucks to distribute them or square footage to store them? We also don’t have to worry about disposing of unwanted books (a sad reality for millions of authors out there).

I think, ideally, we could have both. E-books have their uses, and there is certainly a market for them. But I hope we never stop publishing print books to keep filling our shelves. For that matter, I hope there will always be print newspapers, too.

To be fair, I think e-books could be really useful in one particular way: by replacing textbooks for grade-school kids and maybe even post-secondary school students. When I was in school, textbooks were heavy, often outdated and sometimes scarce. Wouldn’t it be better to give each kid one e-reader so they can have access to all their school books – and the ability to quickly search for what they need – without weighing down their bags or printing millions of new textbooks every time a planet is demoted to a comet? With the latest Kindle 3 at $140 US, I can’t imagine that it would be terribly financially prohibitive to replace textbooks with e-readers sometime in the near future.

I’m sure there are other downsides to e-books that I could cite, but whatever glitches or setbacks exist today could easily be fixed tomorrow. And as much as I love my print books, I may one day like to have the option of downloading a few books for the sake of convenience or to save some space and paper.

But for now, for those who would just prefer to download books and have no need or want to line their walls with pulp fiction and hundreds of Danielle Steel novels, they can have their e-readers. I’ll keep filling my bookshelves with things I can swat a fly with.