Resistance Is Futile
The other day I stopped by the book stall outside Shoreditch High Street Station. You know, the one with a limp wooden table with about 30–40 books of various interests laid out in an organised mess of size, weight, texture, type and more. I glanced at the owner; blissfully unaware of my desire to creep behind the makeshift counter, whisper in her ear, “In the future, all books will be one size…” and proceed burn her stool to the ground in the name of eBooks everywhere.
Instead, to my own surprise, I struck up a conversation with the old wood pusher. What’s more is I quite enjoyed it. She was friendly, yet not over-friendly, engaging but not pressuring, and above all she was a nostalgic, but not irrationally so. I made it clear where I stood in regard to her little paper circus.
“I’m a big digital advocate, so I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here,” I said uncertainly.
“Oh, are you?” She smiled through the sunlight, shielding her eyes.
“Yes…” I said, reading for the rant of disapproval.
“I used to work for a big publisher. They had all these books piled up in a corner,” She made a sad face. “Now I’m just getting rid of the ones I’ve got.”
“She would probably tell me to get my dirty digital paws away from her stall.”
“Yes, I can imagine you’ve got loads of books taking up insane space at home.” I taunted, knowing that hostility from such a clear lover of print books was only moments away. She would probably tell me to get my dirty digital paws away from her stall.
“Haha, yeah,” She crooned. I paused.
Normally, these print preservers are prepared at all times to give you an earfull of why they adore the look, the feel, the smell, hell, even the taste of the books in their collection and how it has only gotten tastier throughout the years. The mere mention of the D-word is usually enough to send them into a sensory frenzy right there on the spot, gesticulate wildly about the righteousnessof having a print book suspended bulkily (if hardback) or floppily (or paperback) between their grubby, sweaty palms… This is then usually followed by a description of ebooks as ‘soulless’ and ‘ugly’ or if they’re really struggling simply ‘not the same’.
But she didn’t bat an eyelid. She wasn’t ignoring me, she was simply being nice. This was a whole new experience for me. Tucked haphazardly beneath the trunk of a bulkier book, I noticed Ways Of Seeing by John Berger, one of the greatest books I’ve read in my grand 26 years.
“I love this book! I gushed without warning to myself. I discovered it last year and, I swear, it changed everything!”
We continued talking for a couple of minutes about the book and others in her collection that I recognised. I eventually left to meet a friend and I felt glad. Unchanged in my steadfastness of the rise of the neo-publishing empire and the glorious death of industrial stagnation, but glad. The fact that she didn’t return my provocation wasn’t a sign that I was wrong about her type, necessarily, but that I had met an exception to the rule. And yes, it is a rule.
As I mentioned in The Paradigm of Pragmatism, my friendship circle is littered with the papier-stroking, literary fiction/non-fiction besotted, New Balance-treading, organic loving, commercial epicentre-loathing, inner-soul searching, culture carcass-circling, African elephant-riding, ‘great experience’ spouting anti-capitalist nostalgics.
Who by the way hate ebooks.
Why do they hate ebooks? Because they represent a popular agreement about where we’re all going, and they’d rather not be part of that consensus. Or any consensus. They prefer their books in a state of dishevelment; dog-eared, battered and beaten with torn pages browned and smudged for an aged and ‘authentic’ look that offers the item (and themselves) a sort of ambiguous historical virtue which neither are worthy of.
But it makes them feel good, so hey.
I, on the other hand, admittedly like cool stuff, but most of all I generally things that make good, practical sense.
Practical sense Exhibit A:
During my masters, my friends and I were living in Paris with our main university campus in Kent, UK. While I’d been getting most of my material digitally and from the Bibliothèque Nationale, a friend of mine had been smuggling a load of books through the channel, getting them sent over from edu HQ in England.
When it came time to wrap up our time in France our library politely requested their books back. He had no choice but to send a barrel — I kid you not, a barrel — back with all the books he’d acquired during his stay. Meanwhile I neatly folded my iPad into my carry on and hopped on the Eurostar, all smart and smug as you’d imagine.
“It’s a dreadful solution. And I completely understand…”
You see, nostalgics cry out in near-physical pain at the thought of relinquishing their hold on a book in return for mere plastic, lithium ion and some internal wiring — it’s a dreadful solution. And I completely understand their need for resistance, futile as it is.
There is a reason we (as in you guys, not me) hold onto print books, and yet indulge in digital music (let’s be honest, nobody’s bought a CD since ‘97), digital movies (apparently VHS tape is now used in place of toilet roll as post-apocalyptic house party neighbourhood decoration — I think it burns faster) and digital images (the only one you can kinda dispute due to a destitute and poorly-looking Snappy Snaps clinging onto the high street by its fingernails).
But what is that reason? Because books and still images are the only two forms of media that you tend to enjoy while you hold them.
That might seem like a trivial observation but actually, it’s a major one when you’re trying to understand the reason print media has survived for so long, and remains, standing in the shadows of its newly evolved brothers and sisters of the content familia.
It’s a bit like when your Bulbasaur just refuses to become an Ivysaur.
As sensory beings, ones who’s hands are used to communicate with the outside world from the moment we’re born, we develop a physical attachment to things of pleasure when engagement relies on physical contact.
“We haven’t learned how to properly gauge and appreciate the increased pleasure derived from these new features.”
That means we do in fact derive pleasure not only from the information we’re receiving but from the act of turning the pages, flipping the photograph, negotiating the feel and weight of the book, running a finger over the glossy image. So I do agree that there is a validated sense of pleasure gained from reading in print when you’re akin to that format, but (and of course there’s a but) it’s comparable to the heightened pleasure we get from being able to look up a word instantly or highlight a paragraph with your pen on the other side of the room. It’s just that we haven’t learned how to properly gauge and appreciate the increased pleasure derived from these new features.
As was the feeling of cultural distaste when we moved from scribes and mass produced handwritten text to the typewriter and the industrial printing press (‘This clean paper has no soul. Where are all the misspelling and strikethroughs and uneven lettering?’, ‘I want to feel the bumps on the page’, and ‘It’s just not the same…’) so it will be the same in this era.
Those who find it difficult to embrace the fast pace of the future will crave their format comfort blanket, and before long we’ll be missing the dearly departed features of the digital book age when something brand new emerges to replace it.
It won’t be our fault, we’re only human. But it’s important to remember that change is not.