Imagination will continue, with or without paper

In opposition to eReaders, I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, “But I like books. I like the way they smell, I like turning pages, I like libraries and book stores…”

I’m going to dust off my psych degree for a sec and suggest that maybe people like the way printed books look and smell because they’ve learned to associate those extraneous qualities with something they love. Sort of like catching a whiff of your lover’s cologne, your stomach jumps, your heart races, even though it’s some other guy walking by.

I love the weird way the water smells inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. But if someone told me I could ride that rides — and millions more — anytime I wanted to activate my holodeck device… only, I’d have to give up the watery smell… I’d say, “No way. If it doesn’t have the smell, and I don’t have to wait in long lines, and it doesn’t include over-priced churros, forget it.”

No I wouldn’t.

Libraries aren’t beautiful because we like seeing paper stacked on shelves. They’re beautiful because they represent possibility, revelation, power, knowledge, imagination, discovery. An eReader is beautiful for the same reasons. Even more beautiful, in fact, because I can put it in my pocket and have it with me always.

You know what I like? I like a good story. I don’t read books for the smell. I don’t read so I can turn pages or hear paper crinkle. I read to be entertained, educated, inspired, or all of the above.

To those who are afraid eReaders will make books “go away,” I say, don’t panic. Novels, novellas, reference works, encyclopedias, biographies and all of that won’t go anywhere, any more than music went away when we transitioned from minstrels to opera houses, or from wax cylinders to records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to mp3.

The work will always be there, the delivery devices will just change. In fact, there will be more books to choose from than ever before.

I’ve actually heard people say, “digital will get lost, but paper is forever.” So, if you have a digital camera, aren’t you afraid all of your pictures will go away? If you do your banking online and use a debit card, aren’t you afraid your money will go away?

Maybe digital pages don’t make any noise. Maybe they can’t be grasped and flicked with a sharp and satisfying snap of your wrist. But if you’re engaged in the words upon them, why would that matter? What matters are wonderful tales, insightful theories, and the unprecedented proliferation and distribution of storytelling and information.

To me, disgruntled grumbles bibliophiles decrying the momentum of the digital age sound like this:

I just love the feel of a buggy whip in my hand. It’s nothing like a steering wheel. I enjoy bouncing at 8mph over a rutted dirt road. Horses and carts will never go away completely. What will happen if we run out of this gasoline stuff after awhile, anyway? And how can we guarantee there will be replacement parts for all of these cars? They’re too expensive for most people to have one. Horses will always be around. And buggies. I love my buggy collection.

In a perfect world, I’d like to see the option of choice, with all books available as both digital and print-on-demand, just to make everyone happy. But the fact is that digital book sales continue to grow, while paperback sales continue to fall, and eReader owners buy more books, on average, than people without eReaders.

“(A)lmost three-quarters of eReader users are reading 6 or more books in an average year. Among those who do not use an eReader, the numbers are reversed… three in five non eReader users are reading 5 or fewer books on average in a year.” (Marketwatch)

So you can see where things are heading. Just keep calm and keep reading. It will be fine.

~ J.L. Hilton

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