First published at LitReactor on October 3rd, 2011:
Shortly after the new year, when it became apparent that Borders Books and Music would be shuttering its doors, my father wrote me an e-mail and reminded me that I might want to spend any unused gift cards I had laying around (these being a favorite of outer-orbit family friends and relations). Once the chain had sunk for good, they would be worthless. It wasn’t until months later that I happened upon a still-operating location here in Austin, and scoured the shelves with my roommate Peter.
I was amazed at how packed the place was and how thoroughly it had been picked over. Large signs throughout the interior announced that every article had been slashed by 60% off cover price, and that each bulk purchase would be cut by an additional 10%. Needless to say, the gift cards I had accrued over several years would stretch for miles, if only we could find anything worth reading. Our first few forays into the stacks for specific titles told us in no uncertain terms that a less discerning plan of attack would be necessary. We spent the next two hours slowly walking the Literature, Biography, Science Fiction, and Horror aisles. Anything that was 1) a classic 2) was written by someone we had heard of or 3) looked interesting got pulled from the shelves. Soon, I had a mighty stack of books tucked under my chin, and was thumbing through a horror anthology when I saw something on a nearby shelf that gave me pause. It was a copy of The Inferno, a book I had read excerpts from in high school and had always wanted to read in its entirety. Everything about this purchase met my criteria: a well-known classic, and one I had been meaning to get through for ages. Nothing about the work within the pages or the time it would take to plow through Dante’s epic made me hesitate. The problem was packaging.
Anyone who keeps up with video games might remember the “Dante’s Inferno” title that Electronic Arts released not too long ago (I haven’t played it, but it received middling to low reviews from what I remember): a sophomorically EXTREME blood ‘n’ guts romp that was loosely built around a plot that kind of had something to do with hell. This book I held in my hands was a “promotional” copy that had been printed to coincide with the video game release: the cover was plastered with shiny concept art from the game, glossy screenshots were buried within the middle of the binding, and above the title, bold font identified the book as “The literary classic that inspired the epic video game from Electronic Arts.”
Awful, right? I thought so. Then I bought it anyways. My reasons for doing so were wrapped up in the events of the previous few weeks, when I had suddenly, and without practical motivation, become a vicious proponent of eBooks and eReaders. As a writer and a lover of the written word, I feel it is my duty to take up arms. Simply put, the case against eReaders is couched in arguments that are selfish, inane, pretentious, and dishonest.
In order to understand the true reasons behind the anti-eReader movement, it’s necessary to first look at what I understand to be a relatively new phenomenon: the transformation of books into talismans. Be forewarned, I am not a sociologist or a statistician and I don’t have any hard numbers to back any of this up, only my own limited observations and my understanding of the world that surrounds me and what people seem to agree on. That being said, there are a few broad observations I think we can make. The first is that people, on average, don’t read books as much as they consume television, movies, and music. When comparing book sales to album and ticket sales, and when comparing the popular reaction and spotlighting of authors versus directors, actors and musicians, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith to assume that the average American spends more of their leisure time consuming media other than books. As a result of this, reading has, in its own sad way, become something of an unusual activity. One of my favorite headlines in The Onion once screamed “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book”, and a popular survey that made the rounds on Facebook once invited users to check off how many titles they had read out of a list of 100 books compiled by the BBC (the survey always notes the low number “most” Americans have read, and respondents almost always post that they have read more than this number). This, in my opinion, has everything to do with the rise of other forms of media that require less time and money of their audience, two resources that are in heavier and heavier demand as time goes on, and less to do with most Americans being unread slobs, but I digress.
The point is, books, in their physical form, seem to have been given an almost mystical quality. A friend of mine from Los Angeles recently showed me a website dedicated to publishing photos of attractive men reading in public. In this case, the book has quite literally become a fetish object, imbuing these anonymous men with newfound status and a qualifier: I read, therefore I am interesting. Another friend in college once refused my offered loan of a title she wanted to read, claiming that books were “just too personal” to pass around in such a fashion. This same friend also claimed I “ruined” her copy of an Ibsen play by scrawling some nonsense in the inside front cover of the paperback.
My opinion has not changed in years, and, given the recent reactionary comments in my friend-circle towards eReaders, has only become more galvanized: books are collections of ideas and experiences bound within pages and covers. The most important parts of a book, in fact, the only important parts of a book, are intangible. Sure, there’s no denying the inherent pleasure of holding a novel in your hands or of beaming with pride at your fully stocked shelves, but ultimately, the physical form of a book is little more than dead trees smeared with ink. It is impermanent and wholly unrelated to the most transcendent aspects of reading, literature and art itself. What is shared between two people when they read or write a book has nothing to do with the binding, the print, or paper stock: all of this is useless window-dressing and the emphasis on such trivialities is inane. It is however, not without motivation.
As with many other forms of media, books, perhaps as a direct result of their niche status in terms of popular appeal, have become signifiers of cultural capital. Like it or not, in our modern world and certainly amongst younger populations, ownership of books makes a statement about one’s self to the outside world. What exactly this statement consists of remains open to debate, however the more cynical side of me guesses that individuals who make a stink about the alleged superiority of Books (traditional) versus books (eReaders) see themselves as part of the cultured elite: the few and proud who cling fast to valuable cultural artifacts as the very essence of culture crumbles in the wake of disconnecting technology. They find their identities, or at least parts of them, in rising up against imagined adversity, namely, the imminent destruction of the written word at the hands of eReaders. This logic hinges on the belief that as printed books go, so goes reading and writing in general. Thus, once the Book has been extinguished by the eBook, it will only be a matter of time before quality literature, and even reading as an institution, crumbles. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of why printed books will not die the universal death that some see on the horizon (though chain bookstores may be doomed), but I will reiterate that the pose being struck by book-toting, would-be academics worldwide is selfish and contradictory. eReaders do not spell the death of reading. Aside from their status as a luxury item, which is sure to dwindle over the next decade or so, everything about eReaders makes books and reading more accessible and widespread than ever before. These wondrous devices hold hundreds upon hundreds of titles at a time, and many works that have long since gone out of print have been made newly available in electronic format. Thanks to innovations like Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/), a dizzying array of masterpieces that might have previously been prohibitively expensive or extremely rare can now be acquired with the click of a button, and for free. To discount these truly astonishing advancements in accessibility, ease of transport and affordability is foolish and hypocritical. E-readers advance the cause of reading. The method by which one chooses to consume literature is a matter of taste, but to deride a wonderful and exciting new way to read and share books simply because there’s no more paper is staggeringly stupid.
The truth behind why some people have such visceral reactions to eReaders is a bit more depressing than many might surmise. Those who create their identities in books and use their book collections as cultural capital are not actually interested in the advancement of reading and literature. They have a vested interest in keeping reading firmly entrenched in the ghetto of eccentricity: an act reserved for the educated and culturally superior. In short, the cultural capital of books must be maintained. As technology advances, and culture is spread to more people more cheaply, the capital of that culture is diminished. To put it bluntly, many who deride eBooks as “the death of the written word” are in fact terrified at their identities crumbling once reading becomes “normal” and books lose their totemic status (of course, there is the very real possibility that printed books will create a new class of consumer comparable to modern-day vinyl enthusiasts, but that’s a different post).
Coming back to my adventure in the cleaned-out Borders, I realized that, considering my opinions on eBooks and eReaders, I HAD to buy this gaudy, cheap-looking edition of The Inferno, because it met all of my criteria for books that I wanted to purchase and enjoy. Would I have preferred a beautifully crafted, leather-bound tome with gilded pages? Naturally. But to throw away the opportunity to read one of the most lauded literary achievements in history for a great price because of bad packaging would have been ridiculous.