I’m fond of books. I tend to accumulate them, and at this point have between one and two thousand of them on shelves, in piles on the floor, and scattered about. But I do have to admit that they are bulky and old-fashioned. In a conversation yesterday with PubSub CEO Gus Spathis, an avid reader himself, he referred to my attachment to physical books as “quaint nostalgia”.
Gus makes a good point. There are few technologies – and the printed word is, of course, a technological artifact – that have survived so long essentially unchanged. Books are large, they are heavy, and they are made at considerable cost from wood and cotton and soot. The information represented by a book is, by Information Age standards, completely sessile, and the hard drive of my laptop, which is smaller than almost any book, could easily hold the contents of even the most avid collector’s personal library.
“Ah, but the experience!” says the bibliophile. Certainly it is more pleasant to read the pages of a book – the words printed on fine paper, relecting ambient light – than to stare at the computer’s damnable glowing screen. But this is just another matter of technology. Even if we grant that this preference is anything more than just a matter of habit, one can certainly imagine a Universal Book in which the pages have the look and feel of real paper, but which is actually a sophisticated electronic display. In fact, the technology already exists. It is still in its infancy, but we should know by now that any problems whose solution depends merely upon human technical cleverness are certainly soon to be solved.
Another thing that conventional books have going for them is their durability. True, they don’t hold up well in fires or floods, but barring extreme conditions, books can be expected to last a very long time, whereas I’m sure we all know from harsh personal experience just how evanescent the contents of our hard drives can be. But this too, is just a question of technology, and the mobility and fungibility of electronic data make it easy to ensure its duplication. Important information can easily be stored so redundantly that it is effectively beyond the reach of accidental or malicious obliteration.
Well, what about formats? We have seen one after another storage medium – for example, photographic film, eight-track tape, audio cassettes, and floppy disks – come and go, but the printed word has remained constant. It’s a fair objection, but ultimately trivial, as text files are easily migrated from one storage format to another. Eventually we’ll settle on something. If all we can come up with to defend conventional books is that we are afraid digital storage media may change in the future, we are reaching a bit, I think.
But in spite of this compelling brief from the prosecution, I’ll keep my books. They are like wise and silent companions. Each of them is an artifact with an individual history. Many, having once been gifts, are inscribed with notes from the givers – either to me, or to the ancestors, friends, or strangers who sheltered them before I did. Some are signed by their authors. Some naturally fall open to favorite passages. Some are beautiful examples of the bookbinder’s art. They all wait patiently for me to visit. They greet my guests, and invite them to share in my many interests. By their visible presence they remind me of themselves, and the content that it is their sole purpose to share, beckoning in a way that no online listing can.
So, yes, Gus, you are right. Books are, by any reasonable standard, quaint, outdated relics. And if you’re done with yours, I’ll take ’em.