When he isn’t greeting people or performing other duties, one of the doormen in our Manhattan apartment building often sits at the front desk with a well-worn book open to a familiar page. I presume it’s a familiar page because it’s always the same book, always the Christian Bible.
I watch him from the corner of my eye sometimes. Clearly in addition to whatever encouragement this man experiences in the words he’s reading, he also appears to find comfort in the book’s physical attributes: perhaps its heft in his hand, the act of turning its pages, the smell of the paper, and the texture of the attached silk ribbon that he uses to mark his place.
While he’s reading that Bible, I’ve noticed, he’s also caressing it. But though the tactile experience must be satisfying in some way, it’s not the main source of his satisfaction. How do I know? Let’s do a simple thought experiment and imagine that all the pages are blank. That man may still choose to carry the book around, but he’d no doubt go other places for stimulation (or for affirmation of his beliefs).
In the beginning, John wrote, was the word. Not the tome or the scroll: the word.
My glimpse of this doorman and his holy book has me thinking of all those literature lovers who are lamenting the advent of electronic books and it has me further thinking about what lies at the heart of our experience with books. I have a theory that a book’s stimulation of our senses of touch and smell is associative of what books do for us in other ways. In other words, we love the feel and aroma of books not so much for their own attributes but because they remind us of the enjoyable immersion that we experience when we read.
This is an important distinction because — barring a return to the Dark Ages — book technology will not relent simply because nostalgia would have us wish it away.
Nevertheless, those of us who tell long-form stories can be forgiven for feeling a little defensive these days. We wonder whether books will exist by the time our next one is finished. We wonder whether we’re witnessing not just the disintegration of publishing models but the disappearance of sustained reading. We think about the books jamming shelves in our library — those works that seemed so alive to us just yesterday — and fear that they’re becoming relics. We fear, in other words, that we’ve committed ourselves to producing silent movies at the dawn of the sound age.
My good friend John Hubner, after writing four books of narrative non-fiction, has turned to novel writing. He told me that archaeologists believe the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira served as background — as stage sets — for storytellers. His point is that stories aren’t only entertainment: they’re part of the human condition. We evolved hearing them. We need them.
But do we need books made of paper? Consider that the book the doorman reads is believed to have existed as a series of oral stories for several hundred years before it was written down in consistent form. And when that finally did happen, it appeared on scrolls that were not easily transported, stored or even read — especially by the vast majority of people, who were illiterate.
The Jews revere not only the words of the Torah but the actual scrolls upon which scripture is written, keeping these treasures in a blessed ark on the side of the synagogue nearest Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, the Christian Bible existed primarily in the form of illustrated manuscripts meticulously crafted by hand, and the effort required to create these objects perhaps led us to revere them in ways that, for some, enhanced the content of the stories within.
Then came a man named Johannes Gutenberg.
Imagine how librarians at the local monastery felt about the advent of the moveable-type printing press. The Gutenberg Bible was an affront to the holiness of the illuminated manuscript, a threat to the privilege of scribe and priest alike. In the promise of its portability and cheapness — its very inclusivity — the mass-produced Bible democratized western religion.
The scribes and priests were right to fear for their jobs. Just 15 years after Gutenberg’s death, Martin Luther drew his first breath. At the age of 35, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church at the University of Wittenberg and rocked existing hierarchies to their foundation.
Nowadays some people — with more than a few writers among them — feel compelled to defend printed books from the onslaught of e-books. But that defense is no more necessary than defending the typewriter from the word processor or the stage play from the feature film. Words live equally in the typewriter and in the desktop computer. Stories live equally on the stage and on the screen.
As an entrepreneur, I fully expect the inexorable new medium of e-books one day to claim a large share of the book market — maybe even most of it. As an author, I’ve about as much power to hold back that tide as King Canut did in his time.
Publishers and other middlemen clinging to old business models could learn a thing or two from old Canut, who took to the shore to make his point and, when the tide wouldn’t obey, leapt back and declared: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”
Well, let’s leave Him whose pronoun requires capitalization out of it and focus on mere capitalism. If and when the market decrees that e-books shall surpass the dead-tree version, let us agree to declare collectively: the book is dead, long live the book!