OH, IF ONLY THEY’D HAD COMPUTERS IN 13TH-CENTURY ENGLAND

Scott D Parker posted a blog on the Do Some Damage site today which got me to thinking. He posited the analogy of a book to a concert t-shirt.

When you read a book, according to Scott, the book becomes an artifact of the reading experience, in much the same manner as a t-shirt becomes the artifact of a concert you attended. People see the book, they can assume you’ve read it. People see the t-shirt, they can assume you went to the concert. If he reads a book, the experience is internal, personal, and not needing a souvenir for verification. He goes on to say that in a book, the story is everything, and the medium is irrelevant. As long as the material can be delivered to the reader, what’s the difference if it comes through an iPad or a 500-page hardcover? It’s through this prism that the book becomes like the t-shirt. An artifact. This is a somewhat original way of looking at it and it works, up to a point.

I would highlight a big difference, though. If I want to reread a particular passage in the book, or reread the entire book, for that matter, I can do so. The written words are still there. The concert’s music, however, is long gone, vanishing the moment it was played. The t-shirt is just a memory of the event, embalmed in a cotton-polyester blend and growing more distant with each passing day. If I want to hear Don Henley sing, “Freedom, oh freedom, that’s just some people talkin'” once again, well, I’m going to have to go to another concert.

Now, I know that ebooks offer the same reviewing capabilities as print books; if you want to reread something, just scroll back to the point and read away. But Scott cited Stephen King, who in a recent interview, said he felt a certain “not-thereness” to ereading. It’s exactly this “not-thereness” which crystallizes the difference between books and digital files.

Books are much more than mere souvenirs of reading. Rather, they are the physical repository of the art itself. They are tangible proof that the author and his muse came together in a magical confluence of events. Their covers are large enough to be examined in close detail. They can be signed, displayed, resold, reprinted (with different covers), and, perhaps centuries later, gazed upon with awe from behind a velvet rope. And, not incidentally, they can never be deleted with the stroke of a key.

I remember seeing the original Magna Carta around 20 years ago, as it rolled through New Orleans. It was on tour along with several other “documents of democracy”, and was displayed inside an air-conditioned tractor trailer, out of the bright sun. It was lit with the dimmest of bulbs, difficult to see, fading after nearly eight hundred years of existence. But there it was. The paper that started it all. I mean the very paper with the very ink forming the very words which, back in the early 13th century, shook England to its core and would go on to resonate around the world. It’s hard for me to imagine staring at a digital file on a computer screen with that same sense of reverence.

Don’t get me wrong, now. I’m not blind to reality. I know digitalization is here to stay and it’s only going to have a larger presence, much larger. Furthermore, it’s going to be mostly to our benefit. A quick check of the blogosphere–Joe Konrath, for example–will convince even the most hardline skeptic. Ebooks are the future and we’re probably all going to be better off for it. Indie authors will multiply and thrive because they’ll be able to draw a straight line between themselves and their readers. This is a fantastic development which could never have been foreseen just five or ten years ago.

But in the process, we’re going to lose something. Whether you call it the artifact of the experience or the vault of the knowledge itself, it’s going to disappear, straight into the digital mist.

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3 Responses to OH, IF ONLY THEY’D HAD COMPUTERS IN 13TH-CENTURY ENGLAND

  1. Patti abbott

    If I got rid of all my books, would the walls still stand up? Nice observations.

  2. Well put, Mike. I have no interest in an e-reader; that doesn’t mean I’ll never get one, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll not accept an opportunity to publish in that medium. I like the feel of a book, the tactile sensation of flipping through one, and the smile I get when I glimpse the spine of an old favorite on my bookshelves.

    A lot of that is, I’m sure, because of my age. (Mid 50s.) I don’t begrudge the change, just as I don’t mind so much how email has replaced letter writing. (Though I’m sure historians and biographers do.) I’m keeping a Zen attitude about the electronfication of reader: it’s neither good nor bad; it just is.

  3. Mike Dennis

    Good question, Patti. I believe my entire house would collapse.

    Dana–I’m in the same frame of mind here. I’ll probably get an ereader when all the fuss over the iPad dies down. Good or bad, it’s the way it is.

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