Excuse me while I go off topic for a moment.
Roger Ebert has been posting a series of sarcastic tweets in which he refers to various volumes in his book collection as “e-books”. “Aww. My dog Ming chewed the spine of my e-book edition of ‘The Children of Sanchez.’” “Studs Terkel left me his autographed Royko e-book, and you can see here where he must have dropped his cigar.” “In his e-book edition of “The Grapes of Wrath,” I found a check my father never cashed.” And so on. The point is obvious, and I understand what he’s getting at, but I also think the argument is meaningless.
Though this isn’t true of every argument I’ve heard against e-readers, the majority still revolve around the same basic idea of the experience of reading as something physical as opposed to intellectual. E-book critics go on about the cold feel of plastic as opposed to the warmth of paper, the smell of books, their heft, their volume, their typeface and design, and they usually end by conjuring up some fuzzy, sentimental scene that involves sitting in front of a fire in a cozy armchair, a cat on their laps and a dog at their feet, reading some classic work and basking in the glow of LITERATURE printed on paper and bound in leather. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
Not that any of those are bad things. I grew up on books like anybody else. I love the way books look, the way they feel, the way they smell. I, too, love curling up in a comfy chair in front of a fire with a good book, though our cats are too big to sit in my lap for long, and we don’t have a dog. I love all those things. But there’s something I love more: words. Words and ideas and thoughts and stories and essays and novels and plays and poems, and all the other things that can be made out of words. A comfy chair and a fire is nice, but I don’t need them, and sometimes they’re even a distraction.
I fully understand the sentimental value of books, and I have many that I would never consider selling though I know I’ll never read them again. And though I appreciate Ebert’s point that his library contains mementos and memories that wouldn’t exist if he had grown up in a world of e-readers, does he honestly believe they wouldn’t be replaced by other sentimental markers? Does he own a print of every movie he’s ever seen, so he can go through his collection of film cans or videotapes and remember when he saw that movie with Gene Siskel, or remember what movie he was at when he got his first kiss? That’s what memories are for. Does he really need to find an uncashed check in a copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” to remember his father?
I don’t mean to step on Ebert’s memories, which are sweet and often funny, but why should they be used to launch an attack on e-readers when they have nothing to do with the purpose for which books were invented, the same purpose for which e-readers were invented, the transmission of information? That phrase sounds cold, but we all know that once we actually begin reading, it isn’t. If the words are good enough, if the information being transmitted is interesting enough, you won’t notice the source, even while you hold it in your hand. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what we’re all reading for, to be taken away from the mundane world of paper and ink, of metal and plastic, to be transported out of our armchairs and classrooms and bus and train and airline seats into another world? Why should we care how the words reach us as long as they reach into us?