I am a proud bookseller and an avowed book lover. I am also someone who acknowledges that the publishing industry and world of books is changing drastically and rapidly. You won’t find me sitting behind a dusty stack of Encyclopaedia Britannicas muttering to myself about rascally kids and their infernal digital devices of doom. On the other hand, I own a device of doom or two of my own. They serve their purpose and they serve it well. There is a well-established place for these devices in the ecosystem of the book.
Still, I do prefer a paper book for most reading purposes.
This could easily turn into a long rant that encompassed all of the romanticism and nostalgia and downright social usefulness of paper books in my life and the society at large, but instead, I’d like to focus on the one thing about this silly skirmish between paper and digital that irks me more than erotic Twilight fanfiction.
The irk came when I read this piece in the paper of record (digitally, mind you) this morning. Nick Bilton begins by admitting that he misses print books. Now, I’ve heard this lament before and my initial reaction is always to respond with, “well, they are still here,” in a friendly, joking way. He seems to come upon this realization when he is stopped by his tracks in the West Village by a bookshop’s panoply of product on display. It is at this point in the column, that I start to think that he will realize the importance of a bookshop’s tactile and browse-able superiority in the realm of intellectual discovery. I imagine the rest of the piece sailing atop the dividing wall of the ridiculous print vs. e-book standoff, eventually reaching a place where a brick or two has been knocked loose and either side begins to gaze upon each other with understanding and respect. I expect even a weak argument for co-existence.
Instead, I am struck by the Hallmark nostalgia of Nick’s journey through the shop. Is it the human connection that one can make when witnessing someone reading their favorite book? Is it the unique function of memory that makes it easier to flip to a passage than search for it in a text box? Is it the sight of a book that his first girlfriend gave to him as a somewhat self-serving gift that sets his nostalgia reeling?
Any of these would have been perfectly valid (if somewhat watery) reasons to explore what is lost when one reads from a ubiquitous device, but instead, Nick focuses on… are you ready?… the scent!
Yes, Mr. Bilton’s nostalgia is kick-started by the scent of “the paper, the ink, the glue,” and leads him to the realization that “IPads and Kindles, in comparison, don’t necessarily smell like anything.”
Honestly, I had to go back and read that part a few times in order to actually believe it.
I’ve heard this complaint from several book lovers… Usually right before they shutter their stores for the last time. I just wouldn’t expect this sole bit of cutesy remembrance from someone who is asked to write for one of the most respected papers in the land.
It infuriates me as a bookseller. It infuriates me as someone who reads both ebooks and print books. It infuriates me as someone who suffers from mold and pollen allergies, yet still reaches for a physical book 90% of the time. It is no wonder that booksellers across the country are resistant to change and progress. Most of them don’t want to read in the same library as someone so condescending and precious. Whether you read digitally or on paper, if the highest praise you can bestow upon a medium that has lasted over 2,000 years is the scent of its parts, then you deserve to miss bookstores. It is obvious you can’t see the forest for the plants that give birth to some of the olfactory pleasure you seek.
Of course, Mr. Bilton leaves the bookshop that has graced him with this whiff of nostalgia without purchasing anything and his final wish is not for a more interesting and integrated world. Instead, his final wish is for simulacra of feeling to be injected into his culture of cold clean practicality.
I’m just happy that the collection of items in my backpack (a book, a reading device, and an ink pen) require no such imitation.