Keep Your Polemics Off My Digital Books!

The following quotation is EXACTLY the sort of rhetoric that warrants my dissertation topic:

“The 25-cent paperback took us halfway there; now we have fully arrived. The physical book does not exist, and has no value. The digital book has no front or back covers; there is no place to assert ownership, and there is nothing to own. The “digital delivery module” is a piece of molded plastic made in China, encasing a few memory chips. That is not the book, that’s the “reader.” Wait, I thought I was the reader. Oh, never mind.” (from Alex Beam’s article, “Psychology of the bookplate” in Yale Alumni Magazine)

The rhetoric reminds me of listening to talk radio. Sweeping generalizations. Polemical vocubulary. Unreflective and uncomplicated claims. Validating what some people wonder about and fear. And destructive.

Why would someone claim that the physical book doesn’t exist? That it has no value? Has this guy been to a bookstore lately? And if so, has he tried to carry out an armload of books without paying for them? Sheesh. But that’s not really all that interesting. What’s interesting about these sorts of claims is also what’s dangerous about them. Nostalgia for the dusty decay of print books (in which I, too, often indulge) is fine. And it’s fine to want to protect it. I actually think it’s even a good idea to work toward preserving it as a model of publication, circulation, preservation, etc.

But there are two rhetorics operating in the quotation above. Nostalgia, sure. But there’s also some heavy value judgements being conveyed, too.  Look at the connotation pattern: “does not exist,” “has no value,”has no front or back covers,” “no place to assert,” “nothing to own,” “not the book,” “Oh, never mind.” All of these characterizations are negative. Things taken away. Things stolen. Okay, fine.

But lumped in among all of these negative chacterizations are: “a piece of molded plastic,” “made in China,” “a few memory chips.” Come on, dude. What gives? I happen to like carrying 500 books/articles in my “bookbag” laptop bag. And then being able to search across all of them for key words, common references, and connections to available reference material. It’s pretty great. And my screen? Bright, full-color, multimedia-capable, crisp, and not eye-tiring like screens from four years ago. And the tactility? I’ll skip the coming touch-sensitive screens because I haven’t really used them. But my Macbook has a velvety-smooth finish. A great, balanced weight in my hand. And don’t even get me started on the margins of the texts on this hard drive. Tons of comments. Embedded links. Some in my own handwriting. Some typed (because it’s faster). And all of the comments searchable along with the texts they mark up.

I’m not suggesting that Alex Beam’s nostalgia for print is misplaced. Nope. I share his nostalgia. But I try to contextualize within the affordances and limitations of what new technologies offer, cost, and portend. And I try to treat with respect the people who are pushing the limits of what books can do, the ways they operate, and their potential for becoming important objects in our lives.

(the image, “A Book Cart,” by zemeigo, appears via Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.