Nah, this post isn’t a part of the common debate about which is better, ebooks or print books. If you have a preference for one over the other, then, hey, more power to you. Long live reading, either way!
Even so, I notice how readers sometimes frame the debate, or refer to books in general: ebooks versus “real” books—as if to say ebooks aren’t also real. Nothing like the feel of holding a book in your hands, and so forth.
Well. Maybe people who used to read scrolls in the past considered those to be real books, and the idea of printing books with a newfangled press contraption would seem too mechanical to them, too unnatural. “Nothing like the feel of unrolling a scroll and reading script written by the hand of a living, breathing human being, not printed by way of a cold, inanimate machine. If it’s not something handwritten that you can scroll up, it’s not the real thing.”
Maybe people from nomadic cultures with oral traditions would say, “Um…why would you need to hold something in your hands to enjoy a story? It’s much better to hear a story in the presence of the storyteller, to hear it directly from the storyteller’s mouth. It’s the only way you can fully trust the speaker. Reading a story on paper would be impersonal and kind of…weird. If it’s not oral storytelling in person, then it’s not the real thing.”
Whatever the form may be, what makes a book “the real thing” to you is in how you’ve learned to think about books. Digital books are real, too. They just come in a different form than print. All the words are there, and that’s the most crucial part that makes a book a book—the author’s words.
As wonderful as a print book is, without the words inside, you’d just have a bound stack of paper.
People sometimes use the immaterial aspect of ebooks as an argument for their lack of realness. Like, “Ebooks are in an intangible ‘cloud’ somewhere. What if there’s a blackout? Then the ebooks are gone.” I used to say similar stuff myself.
Is it true, though? Think of the nature of the Internet, how pressing a “Delete” button doesn’t really remove data from cyberspace. It’s still there somewhere, even if you can’t personally see it. And if it’s still there, it’s retrievable, even if you’re not the one who knows how to retrieve it.
Yes, incidents like fires or blackouts could be unfortunate, but it’s one thing if print books are totally burned up in a fire. If there aren’t any other copies anywhere, then, tangible as they were, you can’t get those print books back. However, because ebooks are in a cloud where data hangs around, there’s a chance that blacked-out ebooks can pop up again during data retrieval.
Besides, I’d say for many to most of us, we already know from life and experience that just because something isn’t physically touchable doesn’t mean it isn’t real. (When’s the last time you physically held the love you have for your family and friends? Is love not real merely because you can’t pick it up and handle it like an object? Not an exact comparison, I know, but you get it.)
The way I think about ebooks has changed over the years. No, I can’t smell ’em or let their pages flip through my fingers, but once I’m focused on the main part, the words, then I can let the story be the story. Even without a physically present storyteller or a scroll of parchment to unroll.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I myself have an overall preference, and I prefer reading print books, for tactile and sentimental reasons. More power to me, and long live reading!
Still, I don’t think hardbacks and paperbacks are the only real books around. I’ve encountered some amazing books in digital form. And, yeah, they’re the real thing.
Past Annual Book Award winners on my blog.