Will Real Books be Replaced by Digital Devices?

(Originally published in Main Line Life on 9/25/08)

They say the book is dead, but as I walk along the beach I see people reading everywhere.

Middle-aged women under striped umbrellas reading books with pink covers; teenagers lolling on towels holding thick, brutal mysteries; big, hairy guys with cigars clenched in their teeth engrossed in the latest spy thriller.

On the train it’s the same thing. There are a lot of people reading. Here the readers are older, or at least not in their twenties. Those in their twenties are either talking on their cell phones or listening to their I-pods. Although maybe they are listening to a downloaded book on their I-pods. One can always hope.

It is impossible for me to imagine a time when people don’t read books, and by that I mean books as we know them now. When there aren’t libraries. It was also once impossible for people to imagine that they would be flying though the air in giant silver birds, or that we would ever be able to type a few words into a device and be instant messaging in real time to someone in a village in Africa.

Logically I know that every book in the universe, and all the old newspapers and periodicals too, could be placed on a computer chip, and we could just download anything and read it or listen to it on some gadget or another. We are already on our way with devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Even children don’t need bedtime stories read to them, as pointed out in a recent news story. They too can listen to downloaded books on their digital audio players.

I resist though. I enter the large, efficient Ludington Library or the cozy neighborhood library in Gladwyne, and just the smell and sight of all those “real” books fills me with joy and anticipation. My hands itch to pick up a book that I can bring home and settle onto the couch with and enter another world. I wander the shelves selecting a few, then a few more, and before I know it I have eight or so. I always end up with that many.

A college building a new library today has to consider – does it need as much shelf space as it used to? If all books are going to be available on computers, will “the stacks” themselves become obsolete? The answer is yes, and those of us who have done hours of pleasurable research in the stacks, inhaling that moldy dust will mourn a little. And yet. And yet, we can rejoice that so many books are now instantly and digitally available to us without leaving our homes. The joy of having online access to research from the finest libraries on the planet without actually having to go there will outweigh the arcane pleasure of the stacks.

The logic of having hundreds of books available on one electronic device is appealing, especially when one is traveling. But I’ve never seen anyone on the beach with a Kindle or a Sony Reader. And I don’t see myself curling up on the couch on a rainy afternoon.

I love the feel of a book in my hands. I love wondering what the cover art reveals about the contents, I love reading the blurbs on the back cover, I love reading the author bio and scrutinizing the author photo. I love the texture of the page, the smell of the ink, the words floating there ready to take me somewhere. It’s a purely pleasurable tactile sense-memory so deeply ingrained in me (and I suspect many others), that giving it up seems unimaginable.

Almost as unimaginable as not sitting in bed with a child and doing the same with Goodnight Moon or Charlotte’s Web or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Those familiar words, those magical rhythms, read in the quiet time of the evening, by a loved one, to a loved one. Not quite the same as plugging in your electronic device and scrolling down and hearing the voice of a stranger. Not the same at all.

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