The Book as Physical Object

A few weeks ago, I got the galleys of my short story collection in the mail. Although it still needed to be proofread, and printed in its official hardcover form, holding the book in my hand made me truly start to think of it as “real.” I thought about this in light of the ongoing conversation about ebooks and ereaders. I haven’t yet acquired an ereader, so I can’t say from experience how it might alter one’s relationship to texts and words. I can say that I have always thought of reading as not just a mental experience, but a tactile experience, and that I like browsing people’s bookshelves, or squinting at stranger’s bookcovers on the bus or train so that I can see what they are reading, or browsing the bookstore with no sense of what I came in for, looking for the book whose cover jumps out at me. I understand that convenience and portability have their value (I would have loved an ereader my senior year of college, when I was writing my anthro thesis and either had to spend breaks and long weekends on campus in order to work, or lug 15 library books wherever I was going, even if I was only using a chapter or so of some of the books.) But I don’t think convenience and portability are the only value, and I don’t think our relationship with books as readers is purely one of words, and I don’t know how screens will change the way we read, and also the way we communicate with eachother about books. I get nervous when ereaders are pitched as new and improved forms of reading, as opposed to one alternative. Arguing that convenience and portability are the end game of reading materials kind of feels like arguing that the vibrator makes sex uneccesary. (I know, I need a better metaphor. I said this at a cocktail party recently, and people looked at me like I lacked decorum. Which actually happens to me fairly often at cocktail parties, come to think of it.)

 There is an element of the shift to on screen reading that gives me pause. We are, on my campus at least, working to be more “green,” in all of our endeavors, and in the lit department, that means excess paper is one of the first things to go. But what makes paper excess? Is it wasteful for me to expect my workshop students to print out paper copies of eachother’s stories for critique? To require lit students to buy and carry physical texts instead of ebooks? I know that I read differently off screen than on screen, but is it fair for me to presume that all of my students do the same? Is it really “greener,” in terms of energy and resources, to switch to expensive electronic devices that will need charging, replacing, and dangerous to mine metals in order to function? The green issue is the best case for the ebook that I’ve seen so far, but I’d like to see somebody really break down the overall impact here. With a giant hole gushing oil into the planet right now, I find it hard to believe that it’s books that will kill us, but maybe we’ve gotten to this state because everyone believes that the resource consuming thing they love the best is harmless and need not be compromised in the interest of the future.

3 thoughts on “The Book as Physical Object

  1. I understand that as a so-called student of the so-called higher philosophies, I’m supposed to respect the value of the either-or logic, but I have to wonder if Kindle-like devices don’t have a place in reducing ink & paper use.

    I mean, I think of print newspapers… the only tactile experience I get from them is annoyance. Also, I hate having to go out of my way to get them. If they could be delivered via electronica, I would be down with that.

    Thinking of instruction manuals… no reason those have to be written down (in my mind, at least). I agree that eReaders can’t be expected to replace everything that an actual book offers, but I wonder if that necessarily excludes their usefulness as environmental options long-term.

  2. can absolutely relate. For me, reading is also a “tactile experience,” and I also “read differently off screen than on….” In fact, I only read this post after I printed a copy. However, many people are quite comfortable reading directly from the monitor. Some of which are much more tech savvy that I am, such as computer geeks, or gamers; or those who claim they don’t like to read, much less write (unless they’re text-ing), and prefer to store all data on their electronic devices. But, when my battery dies, or I can’t fire up my PC because it’s frozen again, I’m glad I have a phone book or hard copies handy while I troubleshoot.

    I personally need to look at the physical sheet of paper in order to review it more thoroughly. I realize that in the process I go through a lot of paper, but that is why the default setting on my printer is double-sided, and I also reuse any existing paper that is still blank on one side. I have read an article
    about using fonts that use less toner which extends the life of your ink cartridge, but unfortunately, they also happen to be a bit wider and therefore take up more paper.

    Recently a friend of mine took a class in which all communication, and assignments were to be exchanged via email only. Since it was not an on-line course, I found this to be somewhat extreme. But, don’t get me wrong — I appreciate the internet and the immediate access to information as it has saved me countless trips to the library. As for perusing book store aisles, many good reads came home with me because their covers grabbed my attention too.

    I do believe that some of these advocates for going green (with respect to books) might be guilty of being wasteful in other ways. Maybe, they use aerosol products, don’t bother to recycle, or drive an SUV. Maybe it’s not that they care for the environment, maybe they just don’t care to read all that much.

    I had approached a woman on the train once who was reading from her Kindle. She claimed to love books just as much, but now she won’t leave home without her new toy. I wanted to get a closer look to read from this so called “anti-glare” screen myself, and to my surprise, it was soft on the eyes. I think I’d still miss turning a physical page, but the ability to choose from a list of options from such a device (depending on what I’m in the mood for) is appealing. For example, while I’m waiting for my number to be called at the DMV office.

    Gadgets likes these are great for students too, although all textbooks, from what I hear, are not available for downloading just yet. But, I personally love reading the printed page so much that I’ve made copies of the pages I need to study, versus the CD that actually came with one of my heavier textbooks. I easily slip these copies, printed articles, or handouts into my bag for reading during my daily commute.

    When I’m stationary however, like and under the covers, I’ll take a good old fashioned book to hold on to as I read, any day of the week.

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