Is This The End Of Books?

People often talk about digital texts offering their readers an objectively better reading experience in comparison to printed books. It is true that sometimes reading a printed book can be awkward whilst lying in bed or on the sofa, and in contrast eReaders also have backlights specifically designed to maximise the ease of the actvity, but many people just accept this contest as already won by digitalisation. My view is that the distinction is not so simple. The essence of a book – the printed words, the smell of the pages, the physical feeling of reading literally cover to cover – can be imitated but not matched by digital readers.

eBooks vs Paper Books

In the BBC documentary “Imagine… Books: The Final Chapter” which was aired recently, a point made frequently by many advocates of digital books was that the printed word will soon follow the pattern left by vinyl records. Yet this is simply not going to be the case. Vinyls have now entered a dirge in which a few select people swear by their better quality of sound and actually appreciate the grainy resonance, whilst the vast majority have moved on to CDs and now MP3s and MP4s – and maybe soon MP5s and 6s! Yet books will not become history because that’s what they already are. With a vinyl record, no matter how much personal and sentimental attachment you may swear by, you place it into the player and you listen. Beyond the moment of connecting the record to its player, the experience is a passive one.

eBooks vs paper books: the debate

With a book, however, the whole relation is much more active. A reader physically picks up the book, opens the page, and lets the words perform on them an effect which is seemingly indefinable and irreducibly complex. It is my belief that, whereas with music one can listen without imagining or visualizing something outside of the art form itself (when I listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto I do not necessarily have to create an identifiable world in my mind), it is impossible to do this when reading words. It is impossible to read the following extract from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea without mentally engaging with what you are reading.

“He was a very big Mako shark, built to swim as fast as the fastest fish in the sea and everything about him was beautiful except his jaws. His back was as blue as a sword fish’s and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome. He was built as a swordfish except for his huge jaws which were tight shut now as he swam fast, just under the surface with his high dorsal fin knifing through the water without wavering.” (100)

And every single person reading this extract will have a slightly different image in their head of the Mako shark, even though they are reading the exact same words. Of course, everyone listening to music may similarly have a different reaction to the sound they hear, but the relationship between music and its listener does not have the same engagement and blend as text and its reader. All this is not to suggest that music is somehow inferior to literature – I don’t mean to say that at all. What I am saying is that whereas music is easily switched between different audio formats, this change is nowhere near as easy or as satisfactory with the written word.

My personal experience of eBooks vs paper books

I am a student at university studying English (and therefore I need to have access to a lot of books!). Many of them are available online because they are either out of print or printed by online journals and directories that charge a fee (paid by the institution) to use what they publish. Yet in the vast majority of cases I will physically go to the library, take out the book, and read it there and then, even though in theory it would be much simpler just to log on in my room and read it online. There is something about physically getting up to go a library that is both motivating and stimulating for me, and the reading experience is much superior. But maybe this is a naive point of view from an avid reader whose love affair with books should probably come to an end. Perhaps, deep down inside of me, I feel reluctant to read Paradise Lost or Don Quixote online through an HTML version because I believe that they somehow deserve to be read as a physical book. But doesn’t that mean I am falling into a trap – a trap that screams of ignorance and a stubborn refusal to change my ways? Am I simply assuming (unfoundedly, perhaps) that an eReader is by some means less honourable than the book?