IT’S difficult to remember when books were solely ink on pages arranged in numerical order and bound within hard or soft paper. Indeed words did not exist to be electronically read until computers were invented, and even then not for pleasure or enlightenment – more likely military purposes. It will in only a few years be impossible for 25 year olds to remember them being solely printed on paper. Children of the touch-screen age will scornfully rebuke a comment from me to the effect I once had no choice but to read the news, my favourite book or magazine by purchasing it physically or by mail order, to be received by mail. Another realisation: I’m old enough to have once not even been able to buy a book online and receive it by post, albeit only as a child or late-teen. But it would be cynical to suggest anything’s really been lost, and I’m not going to patronise any literature-lover by explaining why.
What of the positives? I have never read an e-book and have no plans to purchase an e-reader in the near future (though my collection of books is starting to conflict with my desire not to locate them centrally). I do have a smart phone and, man, there really is something kinda cool about being able to scroll and zoom with a deft touch of the fingers. A little cold and distant but cool nonetheless; like something from the not too distant future. And with the modern e-reader (as evidenced to me only by television) such a deft touch can not literally but virtually turn a page. Don’t worry about losing your place when your little sibling grabs the reader out of your hand or you suddenly have to put it down: I’m betting they’ve got that sussed too.
Compare this to the classic book. It’s printed with ink, which I’m quite sure – but correct me if I’m wrong – is derived from oil. Once again I won’t spell the negatives of this out to you. And this non-renewable resource is printed on a renewable yet increasingly scarce or at least valuable resource, paper. I doubt anyone is fool enough to feel guilty when they hold a few hundred grams of Kesey or Tolkien in their hands, but still, if you consider all the books there are. . . . So an e-reader is electronic, which requires electricity, which is still predominantly created by fossil fuels. And around and around we go. So they both have their environmental drawbacks, unless the actual book or article is encouraging recycling or clean fuel, in which case it probably balances out. I dunno.
Now indulge me for a second: I love the feel of a book, in addition to all its other benefits. Watch someone in a bookshop with a new book. They’ll pick it up, scrutinise it, turn it over, read the blurb, flip it open to the first page, or even the last, then buy it or not. It doesn’t matter; they’ve already enjoyed looking down an unexplored path, if not decided to wander down it. I love knowing that within such a small amount, really, of paper I can carry in one hand there’s an entire world masterfully crafted by another human being. It doesn’t really matter the book was once a living thing, smeared with toxic liquid. In some ways it makes it both more sensual and wicked. Plus the paper ages, it yellows, it frays, distorts and even tears. This gives it a human quality, something to relate to. You just can’t get that with an e-book.
So it’s not really worth fighting against. As much as I enjoyed saving up my $5 pocket money and every two weeks visiting the book-store and buying a $6 Goosebumps book by the terrifying R L Stine as a child – and two weeks in a row when the balance sorted itself out – future book loving children born tomorrow, or the day after, may never experience this joy. They’ll enjoy a slightly different joy. They’ll scroll down the screen of their computer or e-reader selecting their favourite author, title and genre without leaving their seat, instead of wandering amid the neon lights of a book retailer or musty deliciousness of a crammed second-hand book store. God forbid the latter ever disappears. The fact they don’t at all remember ink and paper combinations of their favourite story will be no real loss. And for relics like me, sitting in a pub and talking to some poor young man or woman unfortunate enough to cross my path about the shelves-full of dusty paperbacks I still have, the knowledge they weren’t always only available electronically won’t be so bad. It will be a joy I imagine each older generation shares: that things weren’t always as they are, but were not necessarily any worse for their primitiveness.