Another Plea to Stop Criticizing Ebooks Because You’re Nostalgic about Dead-tree Books

"eBook Readers Galore" by Michael Porter via Flickr, see below for licenseWhen the eReader craze first started a few years ago, I was pretty uninterested. Not because the functionality of such technologies was still immature, but because I balked at the idea that we, as a culture, are so interested in remediating digital technologies to be more like old technologies like books. I still pretty much feel like that. I love books. I think they might be the most important complex physical technology that humans have ever developed (nod to semiotic technologies like writing and language). But I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. So I bought a Kindle. Wow. It’s amazing. But not because it’s like a book. Because it’s light, portable, very low-power-hungry, stores a ton of books, and makes the reading experience really quite enjoyable. I don’t care what anybody says, the current state of e-ink is much, much different than reading on LCD monitors and laptop screens. Some people prefer one over the other, and each has it’s own affordances. That’s not the conversation I want to have. My point is…

I’m sick of destructive paper-book nostalgia. I’m talking about the people who are critical of eReaders and eBooks because they’re not paper. Or they don’t have bindings. Or they don’t smell like dusty pages and musty paper. Or they can’t write practically illegible notes in the margins. I love all those things about traditional books. I do. But not for the sake of themselves. Those things don’t make my experience of Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath any richer. Certainly, I associate those attributes with my memories of reading some of my favorite books, but they’re little more than associations, not functions. Another way of saying it? Window dressing. Enjoying a wine because you think it has a pretty label.

This is a difficult argument to make. I know. But here’s something to consider. The development, adoption, and further development of an given technology, but especially one as complex as a book or an eReader, is a cultural phenomenon. Certainly, and most obviously, the phenomenon is a technological one, and also clearly a financial one. But it’s more than that. Neither technologies nor businesses can flourish without a public component. Advertising, news coverage, research, controversy, etc. So when you (yeah, you know who you are!) launch into nostalgic jeremiads against the advent of ebooks, you’re not doing anyone any favors. And your cynicism is by no means harmless. It matters. Because people listen.

I’m not saying that your nostalgia is wrong headed. It’s real. For the most part, I share it. But just don’t let it be destructive. And don’t let it come from a place of fear. Most simply, don’t forget that this nostalgia, yours and mine, comes from a place of love, and memories formative to the things we like most about ourselves. There’s no reason to think that ebooks can’t facilitate the same sorts of nostalgia. Think mp3 players. I remember my first. 264MB. Drag and drop. No iTunes. Blue and Green. Tiny LCD screen. $150. And it was a HUGE deal for me. So is my Kindle. So is my iPad. And as they obsolesce, I’ll do what I should. I’ll let them go. I’ll look for technologies that maintain what makes them great, and improves on their flaws. I hope you’ll do the same.

(“eBook Readers Galore” by Michael Porter via Flickr; creative commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike 2.0 generic license)

This article has 2 Comments

  1. One can’t be nostalgic for something that isn’t gone. I think the emotion you’re indicting is actually a reactionary fear that if something new comes along, it means the death of the old; a fear that these younger generations have something upon which they might place a value similar to the value that the older generation placed on books, and therefore a fear that one’s values are somehow being superseded. Which, as we’ve talked about before, is the silly fear that ceci tuera cela, but one that’s got its opposite number in the equally foolish starry-eyed techno-utopianism perpetrated by Wired and its ilk.

  2. One can’t be nostalgic for something that isn’t gone. I think the emotion you’re indicting is actually a reactionary fear that if something new comes along, it means the death of the old; a fear that these younger generations have something upon which they might place a value similar to the value that the older generation placed on books, and therefore a fear that one’s values are somehow being superseded. Which, as we’ve talked about before, is the silly fear that ceci tuera cela, but one that’s got its opposite number in the equally foolish starry-eyed techno-utopianism perpetrated by Wired and its ilk.

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