This morning I read an article from the BBC predicting the potential demise of printed books as we now know them. At least one out of every two readers in the United States and Great Britain now uses some form of electronic apparatus. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple have proven to be immensely popular with their tablets but the question becomes whether or not we as a society will eventually abandon the physical book in favor of a slim, light weight implement that stores a multitude of titles. Some futurists believe that in fifty to one hundred years the printed book will be as obsolete as buggy whips. They insist that books as we know them will become historical artifacts and the work of artisans. In other words they will be collectables or objects of art.
I’m not so certain that these ideas will come to pass, but then I am older and of a different era. Who knew that wristwatches would become more like jewelry than ways to tell time? How could we have guessed that the art of letter writing would seem as quaint as it now does? Our world is constantly changing and just as the printing press revolutionized education and literacy, so too may electronic texts one day be viewed as commonplace. Some argue that already they provide a more economic way to bring information to students than purchasing hundreds of textbooks that must be stored and which often become outdated even before they are replaced.
With electronic books students have an unlimited library. Texts may be quickly revised to reflect the most current information. There are even programs being developed that will allow students to discuss readings with one another, the teacher, and even the author of the book. The possibilities are exciting and somewhat limitless.
Still there are those who worry that we may lose something by casting printed books aside. Experts in reading have not yet determined the effect of interpreting words from a screen rather than a piece of paper. Some argue that the effect on the brain is to make comprehension and critical thinking more difficult.
I am an old dog, so learning new tricks is more challenging for me than it might be for others. Still I own a Kindle and an iPad and I have devoured books on both of them. I haven’t had any problems understanding what I have read. My complaint is that I can’t write notes in the margin or underline passages that I find to be important without feeling distracted from what I have been reading. Furthermore it isn’t easy to refer back to previous pages quickly. I tend to lose track of what information belongs where. When I have a physical book my photographic memory leads me right back to the place that I wish to explore without even thinking. I wonder if I would be able to learn and retain information as well as I always have if I were to rely on electronic text. I suspect that I would find myself printing out pages so that I might study in the way that best suits my personal learning style.
I remember trying to take a practice reading comprehension test on a computer one time and my pace was slowed ten-fold. I somehow kept losing my place and when I needed to look things up it took me forever. It was a very frustrating experience for me. That being said, I wonder if younger students who grow up with this type of instruction will adapt to the methodology and not experience the problems that I had.
I have always had a love affair with books. My romance is quite sensual. I enjoy the feel of the pages. There is a certain smell of paper that creates a pleasurable reflex reaction in my brain. My eyes are capable of lingering over a sentence or scanning an entire page. I become particularly joyful over beautiful illustrations that stir my soul. Even the sounds of turning the pages or scribbling something beside a paragraph has its own special beauty. None of those things are truly possible on a tablet. Much of the joy of interaction is gone. Using and e-reader may be efficient but it lacks the essence of what reading means to me. Most importantly without printed books there would be no bookstores and that is a state of affairs that I don’t wish to even imagine. My soul never quite feels as wonderful as when I am inside a bookstore. Everything about being there is wondrous to me. Given the choice of going to a bookstore or having a night on the town I will opt for the bookstore every time.
As I ready my own book for publication I am told over and over again that creating an e-book is the only way to go. I certainly intend to follow that advice but I would so love to see it in printed form. When I imagine actually holding it in my hand I feel an incredible sense of excitement that just isn’t there when I think of it going over the airwaves to someone’s tablet. I appreciate that Amazon has a feature that will allow me to print copies of my memoir on demand. I want to be able to provide a printed version to anyone who requests it. I wonder how someone has a book signing without an actual physical volume. So many things will change if the prognostications about reading come to pass.
I am nothing if not forward thinking. I am inclined to believe that many of the ways that I have done things will change and that is as it should be. If we still depended on monks to transcribe the writings of great authors most of us would be sadly illiterate. I have to admit that if e-publishing helps make education more equal and democratic then I am all for the revolution to proceed. On the other hand, perhaps there will always be those of us who invest in beautifully bound, printed versions of our favorite books. We will be collectors who marvel in the wonders of the past. Hopefully there will be emporiums where we will be able to find and enjoy the titles that we seek.
It will be interesting to watch the evolution of reading. In my lifetime I have used vinyl recordings, tapes, CDs and electronic downloads of music, only to watch vinyl become popular again. Sometimes what goes around comes around. We humans are a fickle bunch. We turn our attention to the newest thing and then later decide that we already had the best of what we needed. Maybe this is what will happen with books and reading. Who knows?
Today newspapers and magazines are a shell of their former selves as more and more readers would rather subscribe online than deal with bulky stacks of pulp that take up room and waste trees. I can actually see the wisdom in that. I haven’t subscribed to the Houston Chronicle in years but I read it each day online. My brother has been reading all of his books from his smartphone, the same device that brings him his calls, messages, and emails. It’s always with him ready to supply endless hours of reading entertainment. Maybe just maybe that isn’t so bad after all.