I read an interesting article (that that predates the iPad) from the Wandering Academic. Throughout, the post references Anne Fadiman's celebrated essay where she characterises book lovers into two categories: 'carnal' and 'courtly', a concept that deserves its own post if there hadn't already been a million of them. Anyway, I was struck in particular by this passage:
What strikes a chord here is that people really do love books as books. Even the carnal book lover, whose volumes are so well loved that they are scarcely readable and fall apart when they are opened, loves the book itself and would never wish to replace it.
How is this sort of affection for books possible in the digital age?
It's true that eBook readers are a little more...clinical...than paper. The experience of a book is multi-sensory—a lot of writers make reference to the smell of books. Reading is a tactile experience. Compare, for example, the physical sensation of reading a novel with flicking through a coffee-table book or an atlas. Each is a different interpretation of the same experience. And it's experience largely lacking in the digital world, no matter how many naff 'page turn' animations approximate the job. It's not the first time I've heard this argument mounted in defence of books, probably because superficially it seems so reasonable. It pulls strings on emotions common to most book lovers and invokes a kind of idealised reading: the warm Sunday afternoon with no distractions, feet up, good light kind of experience. Sigh. I'm sure that used to happen.
And this is, of course, where the 'total sensory experience' argument becomes a bit more whiffy.
The truth is, For all the waxing lyrical, a book's sensory experience is really just the sideshow. No one reads in order to smell a book. No one reads in order to feel paper under their fingers. Book lovers, both carnal and courtly, love those sensory experiences because they are associated with the thing that really makes books loveable: the words.
If you were to settle into your perfect Sunday afternoon read only to find that the book was...I don't know...this one, no sensory experience will salvage your afternoon, unless it contained alcohol.
After a few months now experimenting with digital texts as a reader and writer, I've become better acquainted with the advantages and limitations of digital texts. Compared to paper, digital texts do some things better, some things worse.
The convenience of a portable library is incredibly appealing, especially if your library includes more than a few hefty tomes. I've seen gigantic gorilla-like furniture movers groaning to lift a box full of dictionaries (one bloke once asked me what the point was of having so many, 'isn't English, English?'). Similarly, for texts where currency is essential, the power of digital cannot be beaten. Make no mistake, in education publishing, paper-based publishing will continue its inexorable decline.
But I'm a fiction writer (and popular non-fiction editor) where the digital future is far from all-encompassing. For readers of these texts, what you value most depends on personal preference and your needs for what you're reading. To give a well worn example, a trophy book for your shelf will come in paper, while a toe-in-the-water quick read might be better suited to screen.
Still, I had to laugh at the reports of a school library replacing all its books. It makes me wonder both why a school library would bother pulling a media stunt and when they'll start replacing all those books they hastily tossed.