Written by Abbey Bartz
Ah, progress—the heartless wheel that bulldozes over good things in pursuit of “better.” So many good things have been crushed under its weight as humans come up with solutions where no problem previously existed.
Take typewriters, for instance. Such magnificent machines, with their pristine rows of circular keys. Few things can compare with the satisfying clack that you hear when you punch a key and a letter appears on the page. There’s nothing like the cheerful ding and swish as you reach the end of a row and move to the next. Truly, typewriters are masterpieces of human engineering. And yet, someone decided that these marvelous machines should be replaced by computers. Computers! Shiny, heartless pieces of soulless modernity, with screens that will ruin your eyes and rot your brain. They freeze and crash and lose important documents that you thought you’d saved. Tell me, dear reader—did a typewriter ever decide that an appropriate time to install an update is in the midst of an essay that’s due in two hours? No, of course not. Typewriters would never be so rude.
Progress has unmercifully killed so many good things, and I fear that books will be its next victim. In this age of digitization, everything is going from print to screen, from cozy bookshelf to the chaotic cloud of intangible information floating above our heads called the Internet. Handwritten letters have nearly died out. Newspapers aren’t far behind. Books may face a similar fate, thanks to the eBook.
I will probably be the last person on earth to give up paperback books. When I am old, I will sit on my front porch with my well-loved copy of The Outsiders and tell my grandchildren with their shiny iPhone 97s that things were better back in my day when we used real paper. I fear the day when all bookstores go out of existence and Amazon has taken over the planet and people have forgotten what it feels like to cradle a real book in their hands.
But eBooks are great, you might say. They have so many advantages! They’re cheaper than the print version. They can be downloaded onto any device, so you can carry a whole library on your phone if you wanted to, without the strain of lugging around a ton of books. They’re eco-friendly; they can be bought from anywhere, and no trees are sacrificed to print them. To all that, I’d say—you’re right. But if we do a simple cost-benefit analysis, I think we will find that books are always, ALWAYS, better.
Remember when you would reach the end and shut the book in awe, blinking your way back to reality? How could clicking on a screen and waiting for the next page to load, all the while being pelted with text messages and Facebook notifications, ever compare to that?
eBooks are so cheap and easy to produce that anyone (anyone!) can publish one and finagle you into buying it. Printed copies of books must pass under the watchful eye of publishers, who must decide whether they think the book is of good enough quality to justify the effort of printing it. They must also pass through the hands of bookstore owners, who must decide whether they think the book will sell enough copies to dedicate their limited shelf-space to it. These individuals are our trusted gatekeepers, ensuring that we are only presented with the best literature our world has to offer—or at least, that we are protected from the worst of it. In the digital world of eBooks, there are no such gatekeepers. The vast, uncharted realms of the internet has no judges to decide what is put out into the world, and it has no limits for the number of sub-par works that can be flung into its voids. How can a reader know what is worth their time and hard-earned money? Each eBook becomes part of the cacophony of digital media swirling above our heads (that darned internet!), and thanks to a few good reviews (most likely posted by the writer in disguise, their doting family, or a few other villainous accomplices), you will be tricked into paying for a lousy novel that is worth neither your time or the meager amount of money that you have paid for it. You will spend much money and countless hours on lackluster electronic literature, when you could just pop down to the bookstore and buy an excellent paperback.
eBook addicts argue that their versions take up less space than old fashioned hardbacks, but the electronic versions deprive us of the joy of having overflowing bookshelves and holding books in our hands. You can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their bookshelf, the way they arrange it, and the state their books are in. By knowing what they’ve read, you can guess what sorts of thoughts have been rattling around in their head. You’ll get a better idea of who they are from books than from anything they could tell you about themselves.
Next time you meet someone, take a look at their bookshelves (if you happen to make it to their home). Look at how many books they have. A few on a single shelf, or books overflowing onto every possible surface in the room? Look at how the books are arranged. Are they in alphabetical order, in neat rows on well-dusted shelves? Or are they stuffed in haphazardly, looking as if began with tidy rows before they ran out of space? What do each of those arrangements tell you about that person? Then look at the titles. Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird. Classic masterworks of fiction. Harry Potter, Divergent, Fangirl. Adolescent favorites with which the owner could never part, although they have long ago outgrown them. Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, Fifty Shades of Grey. The dregs of fiction which are only read to be relevant. Then look at the books themselves. Are they in perfect condition, as if they have never been opened? Or are they worn and well-loved, like teddy bears that have been dragged through the mud because their owners can’t stand to go anywhere without them? Open one. Are the pages pristine and unmarked, as if the reader couldn’t bear to ruin a masterpiece? Or has the owner underlined their favorite lines? Are there notes written in the margin, as if the reader had some thought while reading that they couldn’t let slip away unrecorded? Are the pages wrinkled and dog-eared (eek!), or are they flat and smooth?
What do each of those tell you about the person? How would you know any of this, if all their books were in a digital collection, locked away on their phones? One could, I suppose, argue that Goodreads (Goodreads!) can tell you what they have read, much the way a physical bookshelf could. But then you are trusting that they have kept their online bookshelf up to date. Even if they have, the list of titles they have read does not tell you nearly as much as a bookshelf could. And how could you get to know them then?
It baffles me that people think reading an eBook can replace reading a real book. They think opening a device, scrolling through an endless loop of covers, and clicking on one, is the same as choosing a book from a shelf. What could possibly compare with picking out a real book? The experience of running your fingers down the spines of a line of books in precise rows on a shelf, pulling one free from its neighbors, feeling the satisfying crackle of the spine as it’s opened for the first time, with a whiff of that intoxicating new book smell—it’s unmatched. Think of getting lost in a world of ink and paper, velvety beneath your fingers. Curling up in a big chair and forgetting that a world exists outside the covers of the book in your lap. Seeing how far you’ve come as the pages behind you multiply, while the pages before you dwindle. Remember when you would reach the end and shut the book in awe, blinking your way back to reality? How could clicking on a screen and waiting for the next page to load, all the while being pelted with text messages and Facebook notifications, ever compare to that?
eBooks aren’t just killing books; they’re killing bookstores. Bookstores! Havens for book lovers, where the intelligent and imaginative can find solace in rows of titles. Places where bookworms can recommend books for a living. Where children can read aloud from picture books to their stuffed animals. Where readers can float between the shelves, then settle onto the floor with their newest find, not even caring that they’re in the middle of a row. If bookstores die out, where will these people go?
The people who work there might become librarians, if libraries survive the book-apocalypse. But in a world where all becomes digital, libraries will likely just be collections of computers, and books will be phased out. In this eBook age, those who dream of working with books will instead have to work in a cubicle somewhere, selling their souls to the corporate machine. The children will spend their time with their eyes glued to screens that will slowly turn their brains to mush. The readers of physical books will disappear, fading into oblivion. And the stuffed animals? They will probably never recover from the anguish of never being taught to read.
Perhaps printed books kill trees, but honestly, can you think of a more noble reason to die? Trees probably dream of the day they will be cut down and will become vehicles for human knowledge and imagination. They are probably more than willing to make the sacrifice.
There is no denying it. eBooks are evil. And perhaps they don’t mean to be! But they are nevertheless contribute to the decline of printed literature, and that is something I simply cannot abide! Books are one of the best things in the world, and it would be a shame for them to be crushed under the heartless wheel of progress. I would hope that, as with vinyl records and Polaroid cameras, there would always be some quirky souls like me who will never give up on paperbacks in the name of the digital.