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…”

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

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 trappings with something they love. Sort of like catching a whiff of your lover’s cologne, your stomach jumps, your heart races.

Seeing an open book, its cover spread wide and its pages beckoning, is like seeing a quill pen and an ink well. It means something we all understand. But when’s the last time you saw someone writing with a quill pen?

I love the weird way the water smells at Disneyland, inside the Pirates of the Caribbean or Splash Mountain. But if someone told me I could ride those 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 offer over-priced churros, forget it.”

No I wouldn’t.

I think people love libraries and book stores for the same reason. They aren’t beautiful because we like seeing rectangles stacked on shelves. They’re beautiful because they represent possibility, revelation, power, knowledge, imagination, discovery. When we are there, we are surrounded by fellow adventurers, with a mocha latte in our hands.

Yet, that’s exactly what I see when I hold my eReader in my hand. To me, it’s beautiful for the same reasons. Even more beautiful, in fact, because I can put it in my pocket and have it with me always.

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

And if you’re afraid that “digital will get lost, but paper is forever,” let me ask you:

1) If you have a digital camera, aren’t you afraid all of your pictures will go away?

2) If you do your banking online and/or use a debit card, aren’t you afraid the money will go away?

3) Have you ever heard of the library of Alexandria? It was the ancient world’s single greatest archive of knowledge, on paper (or papyrus), and it was lost via fire and conflict. Digital won’t be lost, unless the Internet and every single device connected to it, every back up system, server room, computer, and company are wiped off the Earth. And at that point, we’ll have bigger problems to worry about than your copy of Black Beauty.

I promise, you can still turn pages on your reader app. You’ll get used to pushing a button or tapping the screen, just the same as you eventually figured out how to scroll down a web page like this one. You probably did it just now, without even thinking about it. You were so busy reading the actual content, you didn’t stop to say, “Hey, this isn’t on paper. I don’t like it.” Did you?

Maybe digital pages don’t make any noise, or have crumbs in between them. 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.

I can already hear the disgruntled grumbles from bibliophiles digging in their heels and decrying the momentum of the digital age.

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 for ALL books, that they are 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’ll be fine.

– J.L. Hilton

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