My daughter often laments the fact that I have mostly forsaken books composed of wood pulp and glue for their electronic brothers. Like many, she believes there is something to be gained from turning actual pages and holding in her hands something with a bit of heft and density. A forest of binary numbers, translated to their representative letters, spaces and punctuation marks and projected through a screen of glass, lack a sense of permanence for her, somehow aren’t as real. She shares this perspective with others who still have a foot firmly planted in a past that is quickly receding in our collective rear-view mirror.
I, however, have no issue with the electronic form of the written word. For me content and convenience rule. That isn’t to say that I don’t love physical books. I do. I own, amongst many first edition books, a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And I have more than a dozen boxes of books in storage that I hope to one day pull from their deep sleep and stand proudly upon a shelf next to their kin.
I’m not some sort of electronic elitist who snubs his nose at tradition. I consider, after all, Gutenberg’s little invention (the printing press, somewhere around 1450AD) to be one of the single greatest inventions in human history. Incidentally, Gutenberg’s wasn’t the first printing press developed. Printing presses were used in China and Korea long before Europe. But Gutenberg and his movable type revolutionized the west. How much of a revolution? you might ask. Before mass production books were only available to scholars and the elite. After its introduction everyone could have access to knowledge, opinion, and the news of the day. The era of mass communication was pushed from the womb with Gutenberg. Only the church, who lost its stranglehold on the dispensation of knowledge, complained about the nascent era of mass communication.
Within fifty years of the introduction of the printing press in Europe more than 20 million volumes had been produced. Books mattered. People liked knowing stuff. Within two hundred years Europe of the 1600s could boast a literacy rate that was higher than the present day U.S. (depending upon how literacy is measured).
My current aversion to bound books is a matter of convenience more than anything else. I read a lot. According to my trusty iPad mini, last year I read 42 books (obviously I’m not much into “reality TV” or mindless sitcoms). Printed books take up a lot of space, something of a rarity around my place. So, my iPad mini offers a complete library and the ability to surf the web and check the never-ending piles of virtual junk-mail stacking up in my inbox. Actually, it contains three libraries: Kindle, Nook and iBooks. And all of it in one compact, easy to tote, piece of modern hardware.
That hardware, I’ve learned, isn’t immune to breaking or cracking it’s glass when it launches itself from my hand and does a screen-plant on the pavement. All of those times I rolled my eyes and tsk-tsked at my daughter’s irresponsible phone maintenance behavior went down the drain when my iPad mini kissed the concrete and fractured its screen. Her iPhone, whose screen has always looked like it could belong to Spiderman with its overlaying web, didn’t seem so neglected after the fall.
It wasn’t so bad for a month or two, the cracks in the glass were limited to a couple of corners. Obnoxious, yes, but they weren’t in the way. Then it happened again, my dropping it, and suddenly I was toting around Spiderman’s iPad mini.
I like Apple products for their elegant design, ease of use, and the ecosystem they have created. It’s nice having the multiple computers that rule my life meshed together seamlessly. So, when portions of the glass began crumbling and falling away from from where it had cracked it was time to trek to the electronic nirvana that is the Apple store and replace it.
Apple doesn’t replace the glass on an iPad mini, and their price to replace the whole unit with the same model was close enough in price to a third-party glass repair that I decided to cough up the cash.
Besides, there is nothing like that new car smell, or the unwrapping of a surprise gift, or the popping open of a new bag of chips, is there. There is a feeling, an anticipation, and a well-defined olfactory event that announces the undertaking of something new and exciting. New is filled with promise.
The same is true of books, physical books. Opening a new book you find its pages still crisp and clean. And books, like new cars and bags of Doritos, have their own distinct smell. Combine that smell with their content and the anticipatory energy of the adventures they contain and it is easy to visualize the adventure you are about to embark upon. That simple act - of opening a new book that you want to read - can transport you to wonderful places before reading the first paragraph.
That feeling, I realized, standing in the Apple store with my new iPad mini, was missing. Gone. It was new. Brand new. But I didn’t get that charge, that giddiness.
After opening the beautifully sculpted tablet and signing in, it took a few minutes to download my old settings. When the device finally came on I sat there with the exact same thing I had before. All of my applications were there. The same custom desktop picture was staring out at me. All of my icons were aligned in the same order as before, tightly stacked on top of my familiar wallpaper.
Nothing was new. Except the now-perfect glass covering.
That new car smell and experience was missing. Lacking was the promise of new adventures and experiences. Nothing moved me to visualize a possible future hitherto unimagined before.
I remembered purchasing my last computer (a MacBook Pro). There was a great deal of excitement then, too. And an equal amount of disappointment when I started it up to find everything where I left it on my old computer.
I love the Apple ecosystem, the fluid ownership, and the fact that I can have my applications, files and settings immediately transferred to a new device. And I hate it.
Just like I hate opening a new ebook compared to a physical book, which might explain why I spend an inordinate amount of time in book stores compared to most people.
Content and convenience may rule my motivations regarding how I purchase books, but there is something to be said for my daughter’s archaic predilections. There is something magical to purchasing something new, aside from the thing itself, another experience added on top of it, part of human nature. For five hundred years we had that with books, and any sort of communication device, but that seems to be changing with the emergence of electronic media and personal computing. They are becoming familiar, utilitarian, and so integrated that we hardly notice a change.