Earlier this week, the NW Book Lovers website published an essay by bestselling novelist Jonathan Evison arguing in favor of old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. It’s the first in a series of six essays by this year’s PNBA Award winners, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from a writer of Evison’s calibre. It makes a case clearly and succinctly for “actual books”, praising their feel, their smell, and even their use as an aphrodisiac. It has been greeted with a chorus of approval from book lovers.
Unfortunately, it is also misguided and wrong.
I have a lot of respect for Jonathan Evison as a writer, a raconteur, and as a friend. His three novels to date have rightly established him as one of the most exciting young novelists emerging from the Pacific Northwest, and his dedication to promoting writers and literature is second to none. He’s a fine writer, a fine father, and a fine man. But as I read his essay for the second and third time I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s as if a friend has just served up a plate of rancid oysters, and I’m forced to choose between enduring my distaste or speaking out and risking our friendship.
Fortunately the literary arena has always been open to disagreements. I should start by saying that there’s much I agree with in Evison’s essay. I too have fallen in love with the physical presence of my most treasured books, a collection that also includes the brick-like cornerstone of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I agree that physical books can become cherished possessions, reminding us of specific places or times in our lives. In marrying the physical with the intellectual they remain unsurpassed as conduits for memory and experience. My house is populated with stacks of hardbacks and paperbacks, dog-eared with love.
It’s on the issue of ebooks that I find myself radically diverging from Evison’s views. It’s currently fashionable for ‘serious’ writers to trash-talk the digital era. Jonathan Franzen has very publicly denounced the “impermanence” of ebooks, while happily pocketing thousands of dollars in royalties from their sale. His fears seem to echo Evison’s, and those of book lovers everywhere: that ebooks are transitory, disposable, characterless, and that they will erode our ability to enjoy and absorb literature. But this has not been my experience of ebooks at all. I happily own a Kindle. It resides alongside my collection of books – old and new, paperback and hardback, read and unread – as a device that augments and expands my reading experience. I still buy physical books, and I’m reading more than I have done in years, both digitally and on paper. Franzen’s feared corrosion of values sounds suitably grandiose and doom-laden, but in reality it’s about as accurate as the Mayan calendar.
So why this fear of ebooks? In part it’s simply old fashioned technophobia. While the Sixties and Seventies looked to the future for their inspiration – creating a wealth of science fiction along the way – the current trend is to harken back to simpler times. Things used to be better before technology had its way. Human existence was deeper and more fulfilling. Modern life is rubbish.
In the case of ebooks, there is also the suspicion that they will drive the traditional book from our shelves forever. A similar fear spread through the music industry with the advent of mp3’s; in the future we’ll all be living in minimalist spaces designed by Swedish architects, the walls bare of anything but Zen-infused concept art. I refuse to believe that’s true. I have an iPod, with a collection of hundreds of hours of music stored on it. I also own shelves filled with albums and 7″ singles, EPs and limited release test pressings. The human urge to possess cannot be overridden so easily. Some books I’m happy to read on a screen. Others I want to cherish and curl up with at night. The convenience of my Kindle hasn’t made me love my worn, yellowed hardbacks any less.
The arrival of the Tablet in many ways echoes the invention of the paperback. Most ebooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, and their ephemeral nature lends itself readily to pulp genres and mass market fiction. As a moderately unsuccessful writer I’ve found that ebook sales now make up around 80% of my book sales. While many readers are unwilling to pay $15 or more for a book by an unknown author, they’re prepared to hand over $2.99 for the ebook. I’d love it if everyone bought my physical book and cherished it, sharing it with friends and discussing it at parties, curling up with it at night in the intimacy of their bedroom. But I’ll settle for an ebook sale and a new reader.
Somewhere along the way we have confused the love of books with the love of reading. For many dedicated readers it seems infeasible that they might enjoy a book without the dry rustle of paper, or the musty smell of history. The sensory experience and the intellectual experience have become fused. But this need not always be the case. Any reader will tell you that a good book can transport you away from the mundane and the tangible. A great writer can suck you into the world of his or her creation, making you forget your surroundings, and even the book that you hold in your hands. When we admire (and desire) a book as a physical object we’re not admiring the author’s work, or the writing. Often we’re simply admiring the cover design, or the quality of the paper stock, or the typeface. We’re revering the marketing team behind it, or the sense of history in its crackling, yellowed pages – when we should be focusing on the author’s voice.
I’m not suggesting that we should stop loving books, or collecting them. It’s still one of my great pleasures. But let’s not mistake our opinions as book collectors for our opinions as readers. An intelligent, balanced, emotive, transcendent work of literature still retains all those qualities, whether you read it on a page or on a screen. The power of writing lies in the words.
Of course, when writers as talented and as eloquent as Jonathan Evison write essays denouncing the ebook as a technological upstart, it’s hard to ignore their voice. Even when it appears on a computer screen rather than the printed page.