The Case Against Digital Books
The problem with digital books is quite simple: They are not things. They are not ordinary physical things – in the way that good old-fashioned paper books are physical things. We overlook this simple fact at our peril.
And the peril is greater than it might at first appear, because the replacement of physical books with digital copies is merely a step in a certain direction – a path along which more and more of our world will be made redundant.
“Why keep all those things – things that gather so much dust – when you can have their digital copies in a clean and shiny touch-screen device, small enough to fit in your pocket? Why not go digital – wouldn’t it be so much more convenient? And you can have so much more, because this little gadget can store more books than you would ever be able to fit on your shelves.”
If the books were just collections of words that we might want to read sometime, it might make some sense to make do with the digital copies, but the books I have on my shelves – the books that surround me and that I live among are not just words that we might read.
A book at its best is a thing with a history – a unique history. We went looking for it, in the rain perhaps. We were so obsessed with finding a copy of that particular book that we could not wait for the rain to stop. It got a bit wet. The back cover is slightly wrinkled. The spine is also creased from having been held wide open at those points where the prose leaps from the page and grabs you. And now it takes its place on one of the many shelves – all those shelves filled with books, and so many of their spines creased at those key points. Those creases, those dog ears, those scraps of paper jutting out, all those marginalia are marks of me on things that surround me – things that I have lived with and have lived for.
Those things endure. A few of the books were gifts from my father, and one of those dates back to 1898. It must have been a book he picked up second hand when he went to Manchester to begin teaching because someone called Iam Fleming has written his name and address on the first page using an fountain pen and writing with a delicate calligraphic hand that has since become extinct. The books go back a long way, and they will stay with me for the rest of the way. That is more than can be said for the much-touted digital surrogates. If anything in this world is certain, it is that in 30 years every e-reader currently in existence will be obsolete. By then you will scour every electrical appliance shop in town looking for someone to make your Kindle work again. You will ask: “Can you fix a Kindle?” and they will answer: “Kindle? Kindling – wasn’t that something they used in the Stone Age to start a fire?”
In a nightmare world of the future it won’t be just the books – it will be the walls themselves. Walls with physical shelves for physical books and knick-knacks and souvenirs and the other things we have picked up on life’s way – they will all be considered so much uncool clutter to be binned and replaced by shiny floor-to-ceiling screens that will display anything we can imagine. We will be free to make and remake our living space at will. We will be free. But our things will be gone and we will be less.
My life is something lived among things – sensuous things. Remove the things, and that life is diminished.
Let me keep my books. Let me keep these walls lined with books. They are not just words on paper that might just as easily be immaterial concatenations of zeroes and ones. No, they are parts of my life – my life spent with the thoughts of others, struggling to make them my own. The books are parts of the story that is my life – a life that cannot be digitised – a life that refuses to be digitised – that refuses to be rendered immaterial – that refuses to be rendered obsolete.