Books: Digital or Print?

One summer back in the third grade, when I was, if possible, nerdier than I am today, I created a book fort in the back corner of my closet. I pinned postcards to the walls with blue pieces of sticky tack, hammered a green blanket over my head as a tent, and stacked all of the books in my possession into teetering walls of pages and spines. Once I’d finished, I crawled inside my book burrow with flashlight, pulled open a paperback, (most likely inhaled that oft-mentioned old-book smell), and began to read. You can imagine how many friends I had that summer (none)—but that’s not the point.

The point is that even at that early age, I had already begun to construct my relationship with literature as one not based solely on words, but on the physical manifestation of those words. I had already begun the habit of romanticizing the object, and not just the content, of the book.

Then again, book fetishes are common enough. Even non-readers can admire the “cultured” look of  floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with hundreds and hundreds of books. Want to look well-read? Don’t worry, there are books-by-the-foot available for purchase to furnish your empty library. (The ultimate nightmarish example of this kind of “culture” can be found in Jay Gatsby’s magnificent library—with its shelves and shelves of books, their pages still uncut).

Even so, there I was—a young third-grader, and later a young high-schooler—enthralled with the sensory experience of the physical book. Imagine my horror when in my final years of high school, the e-reader was born—sleek-edged, paperless, and dangerous—into the world. Who could love such a cold, soulless piece of literary-hypocrisy? And furthermore, what did the arrival of those two-tone e-readers mean for bookstores, libraries, and that closely-cultivated locus of literary pride, the personal bookshelf?

Then, freshman year of college, a friend of mine got one and I began to change my mind about the e-reader.

For one, e-readers offered convenience. You could skip the drive to the book store and order that hard-to-find book, with a single click, online. You could read from your iPhone, your Mac, or the e-reader itself. You could yourself the trouble of lugging ten books to the airport in your carry-on because you can’t decide which one you want to read on the plane. You could get the classics, from Plato’s Republic to Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, for free. Also, you could do the world a favor:  by paring back your book-cover, braggart ego, it became possible to save one tree, two trees, twenty trees, or two-hundred trees, depending on your book-consuming tendencies.

But then again, the environmental benefits are highly contested.

A study by the Cleantech Group in 2008 showed that in 2008, 125 million trees were used in the U.S. book and newspaper industries. At the same time, though there was a certain amount of CO2 used to produce and run e-readers, the e-reader would equal out in terms of CO2 production if just 22.5 physical books were displaced by their digital counterparts.

According to a 2011 analysis by The Millions, however, it would take “five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way.”

Update to a new device, though, as so many people do, and the positive environmental impact of the e-reader is lost.

Based on my own experience, though, I read e-books on my computer and my phone, not just my e-reader, and those devices I would use and replace after a given amount of time anyway, regardless of my digital reading habits.

Josephine Michener, a Barnes & Noble nook seller in Nashville, thinks the greatest advantage of e-readers was their economic value.

“You don’t have to pay for hardback books. Instead of paying $30 for a book that’s just come out, you can pay $15. And everyone has to worry about space and shelves, if they have a ton of books,” Michener said.

On the other hand, Michener has grown up with physical books. Her grandparents owned a bookshop in Lawrence, Kansas.

“For me, books are comforting. I like to re-read things, so sometimes I stare at my shelves and then pick out a book to read over again. If I’m reading a book that’s mind-numbing-brain-rot-out-of-my-ear, then maybe I’ll read it on my cell phone instead,” Michener said.

And Ross Daniels, a Nashville native carrying a copy of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, said, “I got a Kindle Fire as a graduation gift, and I do like it—but mainly for browsing. I’m probably never going to use it for reading. For one my mother works in book publishing, and my stepdad sold music—physical, tangible CDs, and lost his job. And really I don’t object to them on moral, but aesthetic, grounds.”

So how do we read these days? How do we fetishize the book, and if we do, is that a dying, or merely just a changing, practice?

Tumblr blogs (like the famous bookshelfporn) abound. We can use digital technology to fetishize the physical object of the book and scroll through endless photographs of libraries, people reading, old bookshops, and shelves piled high with books. Even bookshelves are digital: look at Goodreads, the most famous internet bookshelf, where the whole world can see the books you’ve read, are reading, or plan to read.

As far as the digital/physical debate goes, right now I read in a state of limbo. I’ve got Butterfield 8, a library book; Infinite Jest, a store-bought paperback, John Cheever Stories, a yellowed, used bookstore find, and The Tenth of December, a digital book which I can now access on my Kindle, my Macbook, and my iPhone.

In this shifting time, perhaps the best we can do is experiment with our reading habits, attempt to buy used instead of new, and hope that, if possible, some dream combination of aesthetic and innovation will save us from our little literary conundrum.

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