Books and the Future

March 8th, 2013 Comments Off on Books and the Future

1984

In the age of the e-book, with bookstores in retreat and the physical book increasingly seen as an environmental anachronism, I feel the need to put in a word for the old-fashioned book.

I did my best to embrace the new order a few years ago, buying a Kindle and being given an iPad for Father’s Day one year. I ordered some books, and enjoyed the instant delivery and the ability to read across platforms—picking up something I had been reading at home on the Kindle or on my iPad while waiting in line at a store, etc. But after about a year the Kindle broke, and the iPad is now mostly used by my sons to play Minecraft and Plants vs. Zombies. And I am back to buying physical copies of books.

Why? Am I just used to what I am used to? I don’t see it that way. The iPad is, to me, an inferior way to read a book—too heavy, no good in bright sun, apt to need recharging, and useless for the crucial times of takeoff and landing, when a good book is the best diversion from the tedium of air travel. The Kindle is a better weight, works in bright sun—but brings little delight to the act of reading.

A nicely made book is a delight. With a good cover (or even, as above, a cheesy one), well-selected layout and typeface, good paper, a nice binding, a book can be a joy to hold in the hand.

And even if they are not wonderful examples of the printer’s and binder’s art, they can be vivid Proustian reminders of the time you read the book the first time. The “1984” cover reproduced above is the one I encountered in my family’s library when I was quite young—too young to read it. That saucy illustration conveyed to me a sort of illicit excitement, and certainly predisposed me to read the book. In the event, it was a bit less saucy a book than the cover promised—and, of course, a far better one.

Electronic copies lack that sort of resonance—but the fact that so many books are now, essentially, free (in the public domain) is a great thing, and so is the wireless delivery of them for travelers.

And for those of us who love the book as an object, I suspect there will arise a set of businesses catering to our tastes, for a price. After all, in spite of the rise of MP3s, I still can (and do) order new albums from Green Day, or Cat Power, or Bob Dylan on good old black vinyl.

Maybe the pleasure of holding a hardback book in the hands is a taste shared by a diminishing percentage of the population, but I suspect that the book will survive this change of tastes.

As to the new forms that will emerge as the capabilities of tablets and other technologies mature—I look forward to learning to navigate them with pleasure.

Photo: George Orwell, 1984, Signet Books 1951. Cover art by Alan Harmon.

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