Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Vote for Old "Technology"

I read hard-copy books.  I’m more net addict than Luddite, and I don’t have a strange affection for the smell of old paperbacks.  E-books just don’t appeal to me.  They only deliver the bare content, and that just flattens the experience too much for me.
Holding a screen feels different, hard and stiff, than holding a paperback.  I can’t use one tablet to prop up another, and if I want to check something from an earlier chapter, I can visually estimate where I need to go.  
Books just aren’t the stories they contain.  My copy of Remembered Death doesn’t just tell the story of Rosemary Barton’s murder.  I pick it up and I’m briefly a teenager sprawled on the sofa while babysitting the kids across the street, or a college student decompressing after a fluid mechanics exam, or maybe even the woman having a Panini in a now-closed coffee shop.    
My paperbacks don’t only trace my personal history, but have a history themselves.  I can look at a long running series, like Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schultz mysteries, and see five distinct cover styles over the 17 volumes.  I glance at the shelf and see that Elizabeth George’s novels grew into doorstoppers over time, and my James Bond and Peter Wimsey novels (removed from my parents’ shelves) are non-traditional heirlooms.  Those series, and my motley collection of Agatha Christie, provide an index of post-1950 typefaces and cover art styles.
There’s also the communal experience.  When I see someone reading Hot Six on the train, I can ask if the carpet car has appeared yet, or if Bob the dog has attacked Stephanie’s groceries.  That doesn’t happen with an e-book – no one knows what you’re reading.  It’s also harder to share an e-book, and that’s a real loss.  I have lunch with my friend Michelle every few months and passing books we’ve recently read and enjoyed across the table is part of the fun.   I grew up watching my parents pass books back and forth; the first time my mom handed me a book after she finished it was a step towards adulthood.
Finally, without physical books there can’t be any used bookstores.  As much as I love a smooth, shiny cover and unbroken spine, there’s something adventurous about used bookstores. There’s the thrill of the hunt – maybe I’ll find an out of print book to complete a series, or an edition that was published as a movie tie in years ago with a now nearly forgotten star in a glamour shot on the cover.  The reading-list novel may have marginalia, class notes and personal commentary, and a thick history may have a magazine insert or store receipt once used as a bookmark and now forgotten.  With an e-book, there’s no mystery about who read that book before, or what else may have been going on in their lives.
I know these factors don’t outweigh the convenience of e-books for most people.  Maybe I’ll change my mind some day and no longer consider how heavy a book is before choosing it for my commute.  For now, though, I’m sticking with paper.

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