The buzz over Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers—as well as electronic publishing in general—has officially reached the deafening level.
Call me skeptical. E-books comprise only a microscopically small portion of all of the books sold annually, so perhaps this is just a lot of hype. On the other hand, I don’t want to be like the guys who stood next to piles of vinyl records in 1982 and said confidently, “These aren’t going anywhere.”
E-book boosters say e-books represent the future of publishing. They promise that e-publishing will fling open the door to almost everything that has ever been printed. Any book, in or out of print, can be scanned and zapped to an e-reader.
That’s nice. Of course, book lovers could continue doing what we’ve been doing all along: buying these old books at used-book stores or through websites such as BookFinder.com and Half.com.
Those old books, I believe, present a real challenge to electronic publishing. Book lovers know that a book isn’t just a device containing information to be sucked out and processed—it’s much more. We love the tactile experience of reading something between two covers, for one thing. And books reveal things to us beyond the words on their pages. Electronic publishing can never duplicate that experience, and that’s why I think books will never be as rare as vinyl records.
Books can age gracefully, and they can reveal tidbits about the people who owned them before us. Anyone who haunts used books stores knows the special joy of getting a lagniappe (a little something extra) with your purchase. Sometimes an old receipt or scrap of paper pressed into service as a bookmark falls out. A friend once opened a used book and found an impassioned two-page love letter circa 1970. I’ve found business cards, postcards and notes lost within the browning pages of old books.
People mark their ownership of books in many ways. A name jotted on the inside cover is most common, but some people go through the trouble of creating special stamps. My cheap paperback copy of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet once belonged to the unlikely named Gari Pivvs. Lord Jim was the property of Gus Wilson, who had good penmanship.
Ethel Blaine had style. Her copy of Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art (published in 1911) comes with a card pasted on the inside cover. Her name is embossed on it, along with an image of a stylized skyscraper. I imagine her as elegant and erudite. I’d like to think she lived in an art-deco apartment building with a little dog and wore elbow-length gloves when she went out. I love that she loved her books well enough to have those cards made.
And then, of course, there are inscriptions. My copy of Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality, by Paul Barber, was originally presented to Chris for Christmas in 1996 as “just a little light reading.” Inscriptions are even better when provided by the author. I have a copy of Darwin’s Ark, a collection of poetry by Philip Appleman, signed by both the poet and the illustrator—to Elsie with “warmest regards.” (Where does an author inscribe your e-book download?)
An old book can even add a little mystery to your life. What was the “NCWC News Service,” and why was its copy of Ivar Lissner’s The Caesars: Might and Madness stamped “Requested, 10-29-58”? A little web research gave me part of the answer: the National Catholic Welfare Council’s press office. I’ll never know who requested the book in 1958, but I’m going to pretend it was a scruffy, fedora-wearing reporter, eager to blow this thing about the Caesars wide open.
You learn unexpected things: My hardback copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave still bears a price sticker from a local grocery store chain. These days this chain sells a few genre-fiction paperbacks at the checkout line—yet they once sold Nabokov. Who knew?
I know e-readers have their uses—for researchers, travelers, and so on. And if a book is in danger of being lost because only a few copies are extant, then by all means, get it on the scanner.
But I think we were meant for something better: a close encounter with the written word on the (preferably yellowing) page—maybe even a little must and dust.
And we were meant for the secrets of books. We were meant to open an old book and find something unexpected, something beyond the information contained within the binding. Perhaps we were even meant to feel a little sentimental as we pick up and behold evidence of the lineage of something that’s so much more than a collection of pixels beaming up at us from the gadget of the month.
Rob Boston is a writer and editor in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Are you a Red Room author and have a 500-words or less essay you’d like to submit for our homepage? We run essays on a variety of topics, from serious social and political issues from a personal perspective, to tips on writing, editing, and publishing. We prefer exclusive, original content, but sometimes consider reprints. We don't offer monetary compensation to our authors for their essays, and authors retain copyright and reprint rights to their work. We appreciate your submissions, although we can’t run them all. Please email submissions to email@example.com.Thanks!
Causes Rob Boston Supports
American Civil Liberties Union, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry