Monday, September 22, 2014

Hello, Old Thing

I love old things. Cars, buildings, books. Especially books. There is something about paper that has aged and not disintegrated that stimulates a sense of peace. Anything remaining so stable in an unstable world brings with it a sense if well-being.

Like most writers today, my books are available in digital format, just as is this essay. You can buy paper copies (which I prefer), but if you’d rather read an impermanent image, that’s fine, too. Reading is what is important; communicating ideas is what is important. Sharing knowledge is what is important. I’m not in any way opposed to the digital revolution, as long as the old ways are preserved as well.

Much like an old house, an old book has a personality that has yet to be imprinted on the new version. There are marks and smells and tactile sensations from holding and touching paper. The slick dust jacket, the hard boards that make the cover protective and at the same time substantial, the smoothness and shading of the paper itself, all work together with the words, the story, to make a package one may hold and absorb and enjoy, put away and then, whenever one wants or needs it, the pleasure can be repeated.

There is some speculation today about when, not if, the traditional book will disappear from our lives. I suppose for some, that is a welcome prospect. For others it must be a scary future; a world without books. If that thought disturbs you, then consider this: words written on something physical, be it rocks, clay tablets or animal skin, tree bark or paper (the ultimate extension of that technology), has been happening continuously and regularly for thousands of years. Printing, a method of copying an original multiple times, is also old. Movable type, first used by the Chinese perhaps a thousand years ago, is still with us. Scrolls, hand-written or machine-duplicated, still command attention. When it is important, it is printed. When it is beautiful, it is replicated. It will, I believe, continue to be an important technique for sharing information, ideas, art, imagination and the very tools of all that, the words themselves, for as long as we are able to communicate with one another.

There is a place for digital books, I know. Making words available to more people in more places, where conditions may make holding and moving books from place to place (think flying in today’s world where limits on the number and weight of suitcases can demand a choice of books or clothing), and you can appreciate a device weighing a pound or so that has the world’s library at one’s fingertips. Think about children living in such cultural poverty that they have never seen a book, looking at the words of a favorite story on a small screen for the first time. Consider the number of people who cannot claim a permanent place to sleep or be with family, but who can see your work on the ubiquitous cell phone. For those people, in those places, the digitization of whole libraries and cultural history of a nation can be instantly available when the inexpensive and reliable digital world is in their hands.

I publish in digital, but I also publish on paper. I do not own electronic copies of my own books, but there is a place in our home library for printed copies of them. When I sell books in bookstores, they are paper, bound in covers that attract the buyer. That same buyer may go on-line to find out more about me or the book, might even look at sample pages, but the best thing that happens, in my view, is when a “hard copy” moves from shelf to hand. Then I know that the buyer, the reader, will have a three-dimensional experience: the texture, the scent, the look of words and pages held and read all at one time.

It may be an old idea, but it is one that will remain long after the bits and bytes dead.

1 comment:

  1. As a now and forevermore (i.e. until my sell-by date arrives) reader of paper, the tactile and portable nature of a book is akin to comfort food. I have tried digital media and find it lacking, sure I read news, sports reports, and just plain interesting articles on the computer but for just plain relaxation and immersion in a plot or topical study..... a book is the only means to do so for me. When it is time to turn off the light for the night, placing the bookmark between the pages and setting the book on the nightstand is a fitting end to the day.