I realized yesterday, with a start, that my thinking about books has shifted to a digital model, without my noticing it had happened. It freaked me out a little because, hey, I’m a book lover. My standard answer to “what do you want for [birthday/christmas/holiday/etc]?” has always been BOOKS. Or, in the last few years, “gift cert to amazon.” Despite living in a 700 square foot house, there are probably a thousand books in here, two rows deep on every shelf and then crammed in sideways on the top, piles of them on every flat surface, ready to topple, with more in storage with several relatives across the state, and still more coming in all the time. The age of amazon used books has been a tremendous boon to me and bookshelf makers everywhere. I write them, I read them, I love them.
But lately, I’ve been reading them on my ipod.
Still, the shift has happened. For me the content has become separated from the delivery device.
It’s easy to see it in music, from LPs to cassette to CD to MP3s. I reckon it’s harder to see book-content as separate from its media—paper bound with glue and thread—simply because text has been delivered on paper for centuries. But just as vinyl was a delivery device for music back in the 70s and 80s, just as mashed potatoes are just a way to get the gravy to your mouth, paper is just a way to get text to your eyeballs. But books are not the paper they are printed on. Really.
But reading on an ipod? I’m kidding right? The screen is so tiny! How could that be any good? It would hurt my eyes! And the feel of books, the smell of the pages, the pretty cover, etc etc… how could I read on an ipod?
When I first got my ipod (and we’re talking ipod touch, in case anyone is confused) I never intended to read books on it. I downloaded a couple of free books for fun, sure, and I noticed reading them wasn’t so bad. The get-used-to-it curve for reading on a 3.5 inch screen was surprisingly short, and made shorter by how light and bright and easy to hold an ipod is. It’s weird at first, yes, the first book I read on the ipod (“Wizard of Oz”, downloaded for free, read out loud to the kids out in the woods) felt odd the whole time, but the weirdness went away. I’m serious, you just get used to it and it disappears, just like a treebook can. But I wasn’t hugely interested. I loved books. It was just too odd to read on an ipod. Like cheating on a boyfriend or something.
Then amazon came out with a Kindle for Ipod app.
It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Amazon DRM or anything, but now, suddenly, when I went to buy a book, there was frequently a version for kindle winking at me from the screen, often for about the same price as a used copy + shipping. And the big thing, the hugely compelling thing: I COULD HAVE IT RIGHT THEN. No waiting. Whispersync technology. Instant gratification. A powerful motivator.
So I bought a couple of kindle books. And read them. And I bought a few more. And then I noticed I was looking first for the kindle version, and felt disappointed if there wasn’t one.
Then yesterday, I was looking for something to read and….I was annoyed to only have paperbacks at the moment.
Huh? I was annoyed? At a book? For being a book?
Yes! It was heavy! My hand got a cramp holding it! And it didn’t have it’s own light! I had to twist around to catch the light from the desk lamp and I was uncomfortable! Reading! And, and, not only that, instead of a tiny finger flick of the hand holding the ipod, it took two hands to turn a page! The horror! On top of that, the pages were a bit dusty, making me sneeze! That’s right, I was allergic! To my book! And, and, I couldn’t just jump back to the fourth chapter to jog my memory about something, I had to flip endlessly, back and forth, to find it. How annoying! And as if that weren’t enough, when I put the book down, it didn’t remember what page I had been on! I had to find my own page! Can you believe that? I mean REALLY. Who ever put up with dumb old treebooks anyway?
See what I mean?
In addition, buying a paperback recently I thought, “I don’t want to have to store this book. It will just get dusty and take up space. And I won’t be able to find it when I want it again. I wish they had a kindle version.” Wow.
I rewatched “Ghostbusters” the other day—who you gonna call?—and remember that opening sequence where the elderly librarian is walking through the basement stacks and the card catalog drawers open behind her and the cards start flipping out into the air? I’m old enough to remember when libraries had card catalogues, but I saw that scene and sort of remembered card catalogs again for the first time in a while and I thought, how ridiculous to have to search through actual pieces of paper like that, how inefficient, how slow and prone to mistake. There’s no keyword search! No picture of the cover! No list of the author’s other works, or ‘if you liked this, you might also like this…” to help with browsing! And then I thought of the angels in “Wings of Desire,” sitting up on sky scrapers and fast food restaurant signs, writing down their observations of humanity in these tiny notebooks, moleskins probably, you know they were, and I thought, those notes aren’t tagged and searchable! No one will ever go through millions of tiny little notebooks to find anything! Those angelic observations are essentially lost forever!
It has happened, insidiously but it has happened. I think in digital.