Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The five senses of paper

Bookstores are dangerous. In fact, despite my love for books, I rarely go inside them. There are two reasons for this: (1) it is highly unlikely that I'll walk out of that place with the same amount of money I had when I walked in, and (2) the cozy atmosphere--complete with warm colors, the amazing new-book smell, comfortable recliners, and the sheer magnitude of books--means that I will have no desire to leave, and may possibly become a bookstore hermit who has a special corner and hides in bookcases during closing time.

I recently read that Border's is declaring bankrupcy, and that over 200 of its stores are closing because of the company's failure to keep up with new ebook trends. This is a sad day for those of us who enjoy books with all five of our senses.

Sight. Recent ebook makers like Kindle and Nook think that all we need are words on a page (or rather, a screen) to read a book. This is true to some extent, but reading is more than just reading words off of a screen. When I look at a book, I see more than just the main text; I see headers/footers, pictures, font variations, and maybe even colors. Reading a well-designed book is a lot more satisfying and visually stimulating--and frankly, a heck of a lot easier--than reading one boring screen after another.

And, if something strikes you as interesting and you want to reference it later, you may not know the exact page number, but you will remember where on the page you saw it and about how far through the book you were. If I read something cool on a Kindle, I have no idea where to find it again, unless there is a find-and-search function available, and those aren't always very helpful.

Hearing. It's kind of hard to "hear" paper, but I must admit that the sound of rustling pages makes me strangely happy.

Smell. Whenever I get a new book, one of the first things I do is smell it. It doesn't matter if it's a textbook or a novel--they all smell seductively good. That smell signifies that there are new worlds waiting to be discovered, new knowledge to be gained. For me, there are few challenges more exciting than reading a book cover to cover.

Touch. One of my favorite parts about reading is actually holding the book--don't ask me why. Whenever I read off my iPod, I feel like I'm cheating somehow. Flipping through pages, stretching out the spine, and feeling the wonderful grittiness of recycled paper makes the experience so much more real. The relationship with the book becomes more personal. It's like speaking with someone face-to-face rather than by chatting online.

Taste. No, I do not eat books, nor do I recommend that anyone else eat theirs. I like to think of "taste" in this sense as "good taste" or "style." Ebooks are great for those who have to read something they have no desire visiting ever again, but the serious reader needs something more tangible, something of better taste and quality. Good book taste combines all the senses of paper to create a magical experience that a computer screen can't duplicate.

Now, I will say this: at times, ebooks are better. When I was in college, I would have loved to replace my 12-ton backpack with a mini tablet. True, I probably still would have bought all of my novels in paperback format because I'm a nerd, but putting a ginormous humanities textbook or an evil physical science textbook onto a little screen isn't a bad idea at all. As long as there is a highlighting function.

And there are times when ebooks are easier to handle. When I went to San Diego last week, I could have left my laptop and books home and just used my iPod; then the taxi driver might not have had to bite off an expletive when he loaded my small but dense suitcase into the trunk of the cab. And I am a big fan of reading while eating, and, unless you're reading a hardback fantasy book, it's hard to keep the book open and eat at the same time.

That being said, I still do not that that ebooks should replace physical paper. A reader loses a lot of the magic of reading when the words are projected from a screen. In addition, with the ebook popularity has come another trend: self-publishing. People think that they can write down whatever they're thinking and make money off of it. While self-publishing works for some people on rare occasions, it is usually just a mockery of the written word. It seems that no on knows how to spell or punctuate anymore. Few people understand the power of a comprehensible sentence. People are willing to sacrifice quality for bragging rights, and I think that's a travesty.

So while there is something to be said for the ebook market, I hope it doesn't erase the hardback/paperback market. I want to fill my house with bookcase after bookcase, each stuffed full of books, no matter what condition they are in. The world would lose a considerable amount of culture if everything was digital; there is nothing wrong with keeping some of the old ways with us.

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