The current back and forth between the paper and electronic delivery of information brings to mind ancient arguments of angels and pinheads. Each side will tout advantages and tally efficiencies. The I-can-carry-a-library-with-me e-book crowd cite built in light sources, the ability to change fonts on the fly, and portability as strengths. The no-batteries-needed book people point to look & feel, tradition, and better recall (The Guardian). You’ve probably read about each format’s assets and flaws and you could probably add some your own opinions to my short list above. The argument I am putting forth in this blog posting is one that, as a book-lover and bookstore owner, I feel most strongly about.
I think that the difference between e-books and traditional books is the difference between Kool-Aid and Cabernet Sauvignon. (Please bear with me, this is not as silly as it first sounds.) While both of these widely consumed liquid forms of refreshment provide needed calories and nourishment, not many would argue that they are equivalent or that one could replace the other. And this, I think, is a key difference reason why: one of these products has aged gracefully.
Think about your early purchases of electronics and computers. If you are like most people, these items have been tossed out like last week’s moldy leftovers. Useful at the time but now no longer functioning (really now: can you honestly tell me you still know what those specific holes in that IBM punch card signify?), most of our old electronic devices and media have been deported to the landfill. We use and toss, moving forward in a relentless Veblenesque march to the next new machine as our current electronic box becomes obsolete. Your old floppy discs can’t be read by the new machine. It is now time to update your system. It is now time to update your software. It is now time to update your cords. It is now time to update your updates.
Books, on the other hand, age gracefully. They sit nicely on your shelf, biding their time quietly, shifting aside politely when the new neighbor moves in next to them. They never argue and but rather hold their own when moved across the room to the new shelf or across town to the new friend. The memories they evoke - whether accessed by a complete re-read, the scan of a favorite passage, or even just a glimpse at the cover - are indeed long lasting. With age, these memory baskets we call books acquire patina - proof that they have lived a long life and are willing to continue to contribute to our understanding of the world. There is a certain beauty to an old book, and with time, books can become antiquarian: polished and preserved and coveted. Sometimes rare. Often complex. Old books can become special.
E-books and books are different at least (and for the purposes of this blog - ‘at most’) because old electronics are useless and therefore garbage, while old books are still potentially usable and therefore worth preserving. I believe that it is this graceful aging, this ability to continue to impact us long after their initial manufacture, long after their initial purchase, that make books, in most circumstances, superior to their electronic cousins. Spare me the old electronic clutter and the spoiled Kool-Aid. I’ll take the fine aged tome any time.
Pat Saine owns Blue Plate Books, a brick and mortar bookstore in Winchester Virginia where he buys and sells gently used, out-of-print, and antiquarian books. He is exhibiting in Booth 11 at the 2016 Washington Antiquarian Book Fair.
Blue Plate Books