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.