I live my life surrounded by books. My husband and I have thousands of them, old and new, in bookcases covering the walls of nearly every room of our house.
Our books are more than just texts. They are artifacts that express who we are and what’s important to us. They are time capsules that can take us back to a particular memory or moment in time. They are symbols of our relationships– with each other, with friends, and with the authors who inscribed their books to us. They are unique, collaborative works of art, a marriage of ideas, language, typography, illustration, and design.
Yes, physical books are heavy and sometimes awkward to handle in bed, but they do have certain advantages over ebooks. They can be read anywhere, anytime, without a special device– no worries about breaking or losing your reader or the batteries dying. There are no problems with formatting, DRM, technological obsolescence, or preservation for future generations. When I am finished reading a book, I can give it to my husband to read, donate it to my local library, or sell it and use the money to buy more books. When doing research, I can have multiple books open in front of me at the same time and easily browse through them. (Browsing is very different from searching, and it often leads to unexpected and valuable discoveries. Format has an influence on the reading experience and the way we find and process information.)
I am not anti-ebook– I would love to have a Kindle DX if I could afford one. It would be a pleasure to travel with a Kindle instead of bag full of books, or to be able to download digital books instantly. But ebooks could never completely replace all of my physical books. I can’t replicate on a digital reader the experience of browsing through a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio or a book with beautiful illustrations or photographs, or reading a colorful children’s picture book with my niece and nephew. I wouldn’t be able to share books I love or useful reference works with Matt unless we both have readers and there aren’t DRM restrictions on the works. And I just can’t imagine not having a bookcase filled with every different edition and translation of my husband’s novels, with their colorful and wildly different dust jackets, or the books inscribed to us by our author friends.
There are books you just want to read, and there are books you want to collect. Physical books and ebooks have different advantages and disadvantages, so there shouldn’t be a fight to the death between the two formats– there’s room for both. It would be great to always have both available and be able to choose each book in whichever format would be best for the individual reader. And I can see a lot of situations where I’d want both. I love the beautifully designed and illustrated first edition of Quicksilver that Neal Stephenson inscribed to me and Matt, but it would be great to also have a digital copy of the text to read on vacation, as his books weigh a ton. If I had a Kindle, the first things I’d download would be my favorite public domain works, like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre and the works of Shakespeare, but they wouldn’t replace my physical copies. The real danger to someone like me is that the instant access Kindle gives me to thousands of books, old and new, would be hard to resist.
Why do Jeff Bezos and others who have fully embraced the ebook feel it necessary to dismiss or trash the physical book? Given the state of publishing and the rising influence of digital natives, I can’t help but worry about the future of not only the physical book, but also bookstores and author readings/signings, which help connect authors with readers, and readers with authors.