It’s The Words, Stupid

MikeachimKindle, Literature9 Comments

Mmmm...paper. Downside: mummification. One of the driest rooms I've ever desiccated myself in.

Yeah, but…I like books, you know? I like the feel of the paper, the…paperyness of it. The white creases in the spine showing where the book slowed enough for someone to fan it out on a table or chair. I like how new hardbacks creak when you open them. I love bending open that first page, turning it from anyone’s book to my book. I like looking along a bookcase bulging with stories I’ve come to regard as lifelong friends, stories I can pick up and re-read if I feel I need to reboot a fundamental part of myself. I like books. A digital book is not the same!

I hear versions of this all the time. Until a Kindle won me over in 7 minutes, I thought versions of this all the time. And in a way, I still do. In some part of my mind, it’s still ebooks vs. books, fighting to the death. Digital print is winning all the battles, even if paper still owns most of the territory. The writing is on the wall, and unfortunately for paper, the wall is called the Internet. Anyone with an eye to the future should be reading stuff electronically — everyone else, all the traditionalists, luddites and crazy old people, they can cling to their sliced-up trees and wonder why they’re always hearing about the world from younger folk with annoying hair . . .

The part of my head that spouts this nonsense is missing a few important facts. Firstly, paper is still everywhere and we still need it. It’s not just that we need books we can love as physical objects — we also clearly still need paper to write on, which is why geeks use moleskines. Earlier in the year Annie Murphy Paul summed up the latest research into the state of our brains as we read fiction. I’d really like something similar to be done with writing on paper compared with tapping on a keyboard. I want to see if it makes the inside of our heads work differently. I suspect it does. We’ve had 6,000 years of cultural conditioning to make us respond to the act of dribbling pigment over bleached cellulose, and barely a century of getting used to the most famous invention of Christopher Sholes. We may think quicker with keyboards, but we’re designed to respond to paper in ways we barely understand and wave our hands about, citing the “creative process”. Writing on paper aids creativity. This is why travel writers still need notebooks.

So, that’s the first thing I’m getting wrong – and in thinking about it, half of that divided part of my brain, the part fighting on the side of paper, lets out an enormous cheer (“crack the screens of oppression! The only good pixel is a dead pixel!” etc).

Which leads into the second thing I’m getting wrong.

I’m a traitor to both sides.

If you’re going travelling and need to pack light, load up a Kindle (or your smartphone, or some other device). If you want a newly released book right this second, buy it digitally. If you want it cheaper and it wasn’t just released, get it second-hand in paperback. If you want to scribble in the margins, buy it in its papery form (you can annotate digital copies, but it’s not scribbling in the margins). If you want to keep a book to reread again and again, buy a digital copy for when you’re on the move and buy a physical copy for when you’re at home. If you want to lay it flat on a table and really pore over it, say, because it’s a compendium of gorgeous maps, buy a physical copy. If you want to share sections of it privately with fellow enthusiasts, buy it digitally. If it’s not yet digitized, buy the paper version; if not yet printed, buy it digitally.

Learn to appreciate the most important thing about a book, a thing that never changes — the thing it fundamentally is, rather than the thing it is conveyed to us by. Appreciate that thing — because formats will come and go, but the words will (or should) never change. Don’t feel you’re cheating on paper when you thumb a Kindle to life. Don’t feel you’re hopelessly backward because you use an unpowered meatspace bookmark.

I like books for all sorts of reasons. I also like ebooks, for some of the same reasons, some different ones. I’m happy to use both — or neither, if someone has a better idea.

But I reserve my love for the words.

Image: M. Sowden, 2012 – Santa Maria da Fiera Paper Museum, Portugal (check out Michael Turtle’s post here).