Guest Blog: Would You Like That Virtual or Real?

Guest Blog by James Thomas, Jr., collector and bookseller at Every Other Book in Ft. Wayne, IN.

Have you seen the recent Kindle commercials? In one commercial, you see a young woman reading a traditional book, and in the other she’s carrying a large bag on her way to shop for books. In both commercials a young man shows her the advantages of the Kindle. Not to be outdone, she tells him the advantages of the traditional book--things like being able to bend page corners to mark her place, or lug around a heavy bag of books! Now, those of us viewing one of these commercials probably get a laugh from this, but the young man in the commercial doesn’t. Being the calm, rational type, which is the point really, he remains silent until the young woman realizes the absurdity of her preference for traditional books. In one commercial, she drops her book bag, grabs her friend’s Kindle, and starts to read it like it was her own.

The commercials are simple and direct (with a subtle touch of “dumb blond” humor), and the obvious message is that the smart people forget real books and switch to e-book devices. After all, who wouldn’t be impressed by their capacity to download and store hundreds of titles, and their ability to adjust print size? And of course, traveling with e-books is so convenient and light. Yes, the advantages are undeniable to any reasonable person, but is there something to be said for real books? I believe there is, and it has nothing to do with bending page corners.
I'd like us to think past clever commercials for a moment, and recall something of the place books have held in civilization. For centuries and on every continent where the printed word has existed, books have been treasured. Men and women have traveled great distances to find them, spent fortunes to obtain them, and risked their lives to preserve them. Books have been the ark of ideas that liberate the human soul and change the world, which is why oppressive authorities always seek to destroy them. More enlightened societies have built large cathedrals (i.e., libraries) in their honor. Books have been on trial in our courts of law, and occupied a central place in our houses of worship. They have revealed the depths of human depravity, but also splendors which approach the divine. We experience a sense of this great history in bookstores and libraries. Visually and spatially, we encounter a profound truth--that knowledge and creativity are as old as the human race, and much larger than any one of us.

Some devotees of the e-book argue that their devices can carry on this legacy. Perhaps, but I believe the qualities which make the e-book so representative of our time also make it inadequate to this task. Even before a real book is opened we see the artistry of the cover or dust jacket, which is designed to appeal to our aesthetic sense. The texture of the cover, and even the book's weight, inform us of its physical quality. Leafing through the pages, we feel the durability and smoothness of the paper. Inside, the lettering, and illustrations if present, can be a pleasure to behold. An electronic device can only borrow images and words, having no intrinsic worth. The book on the other hand is a thing of value in itself. What it brings us can be destroyed with it, but not separated from it.

In my private library I have dozens of books from the 1800s. They've endured well over a century and are capable of lasting long after you and I are gone. What about e-book devices? If you've purchased one, and you may have had good reasons for doing so, will it to be around a century from now, still intact and readable? It's more likely you'll have to discard it within 15 years, along with all the books you've stored there. You see, like so many other devices and machines created in the last 50 years, e-books aren't built to last. The fate of these devices could be to become obsolete even before they expire, replaced by some "superior" technology.

The making of these devices, I'm certain, grew from a natural desire to find new ways of making money. And yet, I don't think this fully explains the desire some have to create a world without real books. Could it be that book publishers encouraged the trend to eliminate physical books by producing increasingly poor quality books in the twentieth century in order to maximize their profits? One could argue this made physical books seem nearly as disposable as the daily newspaper. Then again, perhaps we encouraged this trend by thinking that knowledge should come cheap. A vast number of us don't appreciate the effort it takes to produce a work of scholarship or literary art; so just maybe our attempts to eliminate the space books occupy reflects the value we place on what they contain.

To want more for future generations than electronic devices and virtual images doesn't require being a parent, but the issues raised here must be of special concern to those of you who are parents. Is it science fiction or prophecy to say we might someday replace real statues with holographic ones? Instead of real paintings, we might have virtual paintings on our walls with hundreds of options to choose from (already flat screen televisions have replaced paintings over many fireplaces). Generations to come might one day feel that viewing a sunset on an electronic screen (perhaps in a darkened room) is as good as stepping outside to see one. This essay has been about books, but it's also about much more.

For me it has been a privilege to visit and study in many libraries, as I hope it has been for you. They are sanctuaries of peace and civility. Shopping in many bookstores throughout the country has brought me even more pleasure. What I lament is the ongoing disappearance of so many of these sacred (yes, sacred) places, many of which closed before I knew of them. If we really understood what librarians and booksellers have done for us, perhaps monuments would be erected in their memory. I think they would say the best "monument" is that the rest of us value books as they have.

I like to think that in some ultimate sense, the future of the book is already settled. An inspired writer once told us (Revelation 20:12) that there are books in Heaven.

*Many thanks to James Thomas Jr. for this essay. If you'd like to submit a guest column on any topic related to collecting, bookselling, or libraries, please contact the editor at rebecca@finebooksmagazine.com.
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