The Joy of Books

There’s a video going around about books:

This is a beautiful video. It uses vibrant colors and the physicality of books to interact with the music (which sounds remarkably like the magical Harry Potter soundtrack), and it’s even cooler because it uses real books in a real bookstore. But to me, this is not a video about the joy of books, but the beauty of physical books.

Look at the comments on the video, and you will quickly see one of the reasons it was made. It is a reaction to ebooks, an artistic argument in support of the physical book. That idea taps into a growing movement of resistance against ebooks. I read an article recently (that now I can’t find) saying that for the first time in years, more than 50% of the people polled said they will not buy ebooks in the next year. As the Kindle and Nook grow more popular, the die-hard physical book protectors are standing up and saying no.

Now, I love physical books as much as the next person. I’ve been known to smell books (especially old ones) on more than one occasion, and I love running my fingers over book spines (again, especially old ones). Still, I’m not anti-ebooks, and this video does very little to convince me that I should be.

What I love about books is the experiences I find inside them. I love the story written in the book. Sure, I appreciate the physicality, but for me, the magic is not in the binding or typography or cover. The magic of books and the joy of books is the way I can be captured by words and catapulted into a completely different world. This video has nothing to do with that. This video is celebrating not the book product–stories or information–but the packaging: the physical book itself.

I’m in a class right now that has given me some thoughts on why people are getting so defensive about physical books. In a book called Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong talks about how the advent of writing suddenly transformed words from abstract sounds to something physical. Writing them down gave them actual space. And books were the Holy Grail of that space: a collection of words and thoughts that could be measured by thickness. Instead of just saying, “yes, I’ve heard that story,” you could display the knowledge you had gained by keeping that book around on a shelf. Of course, this evolved over the centuries from a time when only institutions and rich people could have books to when the average person could bring home tomes. In the twenties, the phenomenon of “bookaflage” started developing, where people bought books that looked impressive and put them on the shelves without necessarily reading them.

Ebooks threaten this display of knowledge. With an ereader, no matter how many books you have read, you have only one device to show for it. And even if you start upgrading or replacing that ereader, you can’t display each Kindle as evidence of your books. For me, it almost feels like ebooks are library books. Although I get to keep them, they just exist in the archives of my Kindle. I don’t see their spines. Occasionally, as I am looking for my new books, I might scroll past their titles. But I read the books, and they largely disappear. There are solutions to this, like Goodreads, a website that lets you keep track of books you’ve read and share that with friends, but it won’t ever be the same as having a bookshelf to display your accomplishments. The physical book is a trophy of your intellectual work; the ebook is merely a tool to read.

Also at stake here is the sense of authority that comes with print books. As Ong points out, print offers a sense of closure to a text. The words, font, and design are all set and printed in hundreds or thousands of copies. There is no changing to be done. Plus, printing implies an endorsement: someone has agreed with what this author has said to pay for all that designing and printing to be done. The authority behind print books is great, and people generally take it as final.

But moving to the digital platform changes this. Text on a website that has been approved by fifty people in a company looks the same as text on a blog. A book on a Kindle looks exactly like an unedited manuscript on a Kindle (as I’ve mentioned in this post, where I talk about how awesome Kindles are). And self-published books look the same as a Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ebook edition (except for, possibly, the quality of the cover). The democratization implied by ebooks–the wonderful fact that everything looks the same–means that books no longer have the same authority as when they are actually printed.

Finally, I think the resistance to ebooks comes from a defense about the purpose and nature of books. While any book lover always tries to convert the nonbelievers, we have an underlying assumption that we are a rare breed. This is best illustrated by Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (which I just read this December and could rave for a whole other blog post about), which begins with a young boy being initiated into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where only true lovers of books can go. There is a difference between those who read occasionally and those who read (to borrow a slang colloquialism) like it’s their occupation. And print books play a large role in this barrier. A true book lover will go to a bookstore (preferably independent or of used books) and spend hours looking for the perfect volume. The occasional reader will only go in when they already know what they’re going to buy.

But ebooks eliminate the physical bookstore, and online is no real substitution. There is no magical browsing of dusty shelves on Amazon. There is only surfing through titles, and I doubt that even the most hardcore book lover will spend much time there. Not only is online book shopping impersonal, it also equates books with other forms of media. On Amazon, you can buy music and movies (not to mention home goods) alongside those beloved books. If you’re looking for a free book download (don’t do it!), the websites that provide them are startlingly similar to video piracy sites. So instead of belonging in small, magical stores, books now reside in the easily-accessible realm of music, movies, and television shows–you know, the media that rots your mind out. And this is on a larger scale than even the big-box bookstores like Barnes and Noble and poor Borders, because then the emphasis was still on books. On the internet, the volume of movies and music and books and video games is basically the same.

This is another assumption at the core of a book lover’s ideology: books are good for you. Books stimulate and inspire thought. Books are not at all mindless or a waste of time, which is what television and movies are. So when ebooks place books in the same venue as that media, it equates books with being mindless and a waste of time.

Is it right to defend print books? I am consoled by the idea that they will not go away, for many of the reasons above. I love bookstores and libraries; I want the authority of having a publishing house behind me. I want physical copies of all the books I’ve worked on because the ebook is too elusive for me: I want that trophy of my hard work. But I don’t worship print books for being physical objects. The magical art, for me, is the storytelling, and that remains the same no matter which medium it is on.

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