As good old tree corpse based books suffered a double digit loss from last year of 11.3%, eBook sales rose 116% over the same period. Excuse me while I let the inevitable lamentation of the end of some last great intellectual bastion pass before I carry on. I can name at least one person who is deeply saddened by this passing of the torch. He isn’t alone either. Every article, blog post or general rant about eBooks is followed by a legion of respondents all with the same refrain: “I’ll never get tired of the smell of real books.” Odd, I wasn’t aware we absorbed the written word through smell.
Let me get one thing straight. I’m a bibliophile. I’m not one of those fake bibliophiles who takes on the claim in order to be fashionably trendy but in reality haven’t read a new book in the past month. (You know yourselves. You conflate having read books and enjoying them at some point, with being a “bookworm.”) I, and many bibliophiles I know, read on the order of 2 books a week on a busy week, one every day or two (or three) on average. The love of books, for us, is a lifestyle. When I wear my t-shirt saying “there’s nothing sexier than a librarian” I’m not being ironic (in reference to the fact that they are called ironic shirts). I measure myself by how many books I haven’t read yet. Now that I have my credentials put forward, let’s get to the point of disagreement.
If you asked me as recently as 2 years ago what my position on eBooks was, I would have told you the same thing you have the urge to blurt out of your pie hole right now. I love books, I’ll never give up books, and I love the scent, the feel, the texture. Nothing gives me more pleasure than curling up with leather bound hardcover that’s seen the hands of multiple generations, blah blah woof woof. If it’s not apparent, I’ve switched sides. I’m not going to give you that argument about saving trees to save the planet; though that’s a huge benefit (it would be hypocritical due to the environmental damage caused by the factory manufacture of eBook devices).
What you have to ask yourself is this, which is more important to you, the medium or the message? Wikipedia defines a bibliophile as an individual who loves books for their content, or otherwise loves reading. When you dig into it, you start to get into broader definitions which add the enjoyment of admiring and collecting books, but the emphasis is still on content and reading. If you love a book for the medium, what’s the point? No author on the planet writes a book so that you can smell it or run your finger down its spine. Authors write books because they want to be read. My first edition hardcover of Frank Herbert’s Dune is special to me because it is Dune, not because of the craftsmanship of the book itself. I would enjoy it equally if it were printed on loosely stapled printer paper. If your entire pleasure is that of the scent and texture of industrial chemical treatment of dead trees, I have to call you out for either being a trendster/hipster, weirdo, or an idiot who completely misses the point. Quite frankly, you don’t deserve them thur book learnins ‘n stuff.
Books, the medium, are static devices. There has been no meaningful advancement in the form of books since 5 centuries ago, beyond the increasing efficiency of the manufacturing process. Let’s put things in context. There are places on this planet with access to cell phones and international text messages. These places are overflowing with people who want to learn, and we are bringing them internet access because it is scalable. That means, the type of internet access we can bring them doesn’t get more expensive the more you implement it. It gets cheaper over time (contrary to what Comcast and Verizon would have you believe). Books on the other hand, are the opposite. The more books you want to send to a location, the more expensive it becomes. There are places with more cell phones than books because cell phones (barring your woefully overpowered smart phone) are increasingly becoming as cheap to produce as books, as technology advances. They are also smaller, lighter, and able to perform other vital functions. Your monophonic dumb Nokia phone may be incapable of much more than text and calls, but feature phones of today increasingly look like smart phones of yesterday, and those societies that are traditionally underserved by books are getting their hands on these devices in droves.
In other words, there is a whole world out there that would have never had access to books that in a decade will have access to hundreds of thousands of at the very least, the public domain works. Whether you like it or not, these eBooks have opened up a great opportunity for readers. What makes it even more remarkable is that they are making books available to people who actually have a yearning to read, rather than the intellectually lazy populations of the first world. It’s a mark of our prosperity that we can afford to spend fortunes on books that we will never read. It’s an even greater sign of our prosperity that we can afford to not want or need to read. So this goes a long way in explaining why reading seems to have become a niche activity in the 1st world (or only for school). eBooks are opening the door to those who want to read but have no access. Paper books were already dying without the help of eBooks because of the arrogance of prosperity (among other things). EBooks are offering a renaissance of sorts, both for reading and publishing.
However, allow me to also point out some implications read between the lines. There are many people who want to read but cannot because books are too expensive, too bulky, too heavy, too high maintenance, too uncomfortable to hold, too haunted by being forced to read that awful drivel called Catcher in The Rye in high school, too fraught with negative nerd connotations (cool kids don’t read, they wait for the movie), too etc. Like it or not, you posers are the last of a dying breed. You can hold on to your paper books and pretend you’ve read all of them. You can carry your one book at a time and if you finish it while on the train, well, you get to spend the rest of your trip staring into a stranger’s face. You can embrace whatever haughty, condescending pose to patronize the rest of us. You can lament the coming end of paper books and feel genuinely sad that they are going because you really are a book lover and it’s unfair of me to clump you with the posers. I, and others like me, however, will continue to walk around with a device lighter than a paperback but with access to (currently) 1,458 books that I’m systematically reading through. I will continue to go on to the next book the moment I finish the last one so that I don’t have to meet the girl of my dreams on the train (pfft! Social interaction is for squares). I will continue, true to form as a bibliophile, to enjoy the written word regardless of the medium.
Progress is a bitch. In the words of idiocracy, you can choose to lead, follow, or get out of the way. Just please stop pretending it’s anything more than a vestigial* sense of nostalgia. Now, stop being bashful and become one of us (gooble gobble)