21 February 2011

Something to be Said for the Real Thing

AKA: E-Readers and the imagined plight of the printed word.

Hello, my name is Stephen. My hobbies include gardening, auto-maintenance and drinking. I hate long walks on the beach. My second favorite pastime (losing by a hair to sleeping) is reading; so much so that I don't even own a TV. I have read and seen and heard a ton about the future of books and periodicals in an ever increasingly digital world and as an advocate for all the real things I see it as a great time to be a reader or a writer.

To add to my dating tape intro, I also really enjoy photography. Not the kind your average hipster studies with his or her iPhone and a "Holga" app, but the real kind with film, silver coated paper and lots of smelly carcinogenic chemicals. I am quite cantankerous about it, ask anyone who has seen me at an art gallery, plenty of "I can do that with chemistry and light instead of a button on Photoshop but you don't see me charging five grand a print..." etc. I have a nearly tearful affection for anything made by hand with sweat and blood, wood and leather. There is something instantly magnetic to me about anything that has a reality to it something that can weather, age, season, grow and maybe even die.

That said, I also own and E-Reader and publish an E-zine

On my friendly Kindle this morning I read an article in the New York Times about libraries trying to preserve marginalia, or stuff other people have scribbled on books. A group of dudes and dudettes has even banded together and begun spending money on how to best keep such a strange and borderline vanadalistic practice around in the digital age with something of a mournful tone.

I had to laugh. 

For some strange reason there is this belief that digital and physical print cannot exist peacefully in the same world. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why. We have both keyboards and pens don't we? TV's and picture frames? As stated, I am a contradiction: lover of the handmade, consumer of the digital. But where is the harm in that? Will all books one day be compressed to files I will have to use my (device of choice here) to read? No. Will all periodicals one day meet such a fate? Maybe. 

The maybe is an interesting one because if periodicals in print form were to go away, would it be that bad? If you look at environmental damage from litter and consumption and at overhead cost for ink and shipping it seems that digital would be the medium of choice for ever increasingly green and penny conscious magazines. Even so I doubt all things will go away. There is still the scholarly periodical, the literature periodical, circulars dedicated to a more permanent standing that will likely remain as paper and that is great. Just like Latin is great for naming new sea creatures but maybe not so great for ordering a cheeseburger, print is great for poems but maybe not for Justin Bieber gossip.

Books won't go because books are books, you cannot and will not be able to dispense with a book. The only thing Kindles and Nooks prove is not that print is becoming outmoded but there is so much great writing out there wanting to be read that it is hard to find room for it all. An example. I have at least two dozen books on my Kindle at the moment, none of which I had to pay for. Books older than a certain year or under public domain for any other reason have been donated in their digital form by charitable organizations hoping to spread the word. Stuff like Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Pamela are among my "To Read" list on the Kindle. Why the digital version over the book? Simple: free, easier to carry, and who knows if I will really like it. In the case of Pamela, regarded as English's first modern novel chances are high that I won't like it. So why get a big stuff version of it that will collect dust on a shelf until I give it away or burn it for heat? And who has time for a library anyway?  Like many twenty-somethings I go a lot of places and end up waiting on a lot of things. Fortunately I can now lug around some fifteen or so of my favorite distractions to my favorite waiting areas such as bus stops, doctors offices and ferries. 

On the book front, I also have a stack of  six "Currently Reading" selections between 400 and 1000 pages each. I keep busy. Not to mention the fact that I just dropped nearly seven Hamiltons on a few hardbound first editions from some literary badasses over at Otherworld Books. Digital stuff is easy to steal, just ask my "Music" folder on my hard drive but writers are people too and people get hungry. When it comes to literary greats of too little attention I am all to happy to spend a good night at a bar on just two books. Who knows what will become of a small press writer? The next Stephenie Meyer? The next Thomas Pynchon? Where will their first books be? I would bet it is easier for an upstarts e-book to get lost before his hardbound and that's just not cool.

I like my paper books and I like my E-Books. As for marginalia, I make notes in both; I write my name on the inside cover of every book and I highlight every turn of phrase I like or that has the possibility to change my life. One upside to the Kindle is that it stores all my notes and I can find them in a breeze, don't have to thumb through 500 onion skin sheets of Pound to find that poem I wanted to read. One upside to a book: it's still a human made (though with more machines than hands) and genuine thing I can lug, mark, damage and even age with me. A writer can sign his or her book when I meet them at a reading, an e-reader can get me free copies of books that I was supposed to read in high school but didn't. Both fit, both work. I'll leave it up to you to guess which I prefer, but I'll finish by saying that E-Readers are no more the end of print than Word Processors are the end of writing. Find me someone who types everything he wants to remember at the grocery store, find me someone who gets all her news from only print sources. 

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