Paper or Plastic?

Posted on August 24, 2010

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Electronic book readers are dropping from the sky like an invasion from Mars. At least that’s how it appears to me. I’m the only person on the planet who still doesn’t have a cell phone, I’ve never sent or received a text message, and I wouldn’t know a BlackBerry from a Baby Ruth. Yet when Amazon’s Kindle arrived in 2007, I felt as though someone had invented time travel, or at least the electronic equivalent of pizza.

I wanted one.

There had been other ebook readers on the market before Kindle, and I was aware of them in a fuzzy, out-of-the-loop kind of way. I was intrigued, but did nothing to pursue the possibilities. Several factors caused my hesitation, including price. Paying hundreds of dollars for the ability to buy ebooks raised immediate questions. The ebooks were less expensive than printed books, but would I buy enough of them to make up for the cost of the device? I had no doubt that I would. But I also knew that a second version of the Kindle would show up sooner or later. And a third, and a fourth. I reminded myself that I had long been caught in the computer-software-browser trap, which forced me to spend thousands of dollars every few years just so I could keep doing what I had been doing with my now obsolete equipment. Could the same thing happen with ebook readers? Would I be able to transfer already purchased books from the unit to its successor, or would I have to purchase them again and again? If I lost my reader — like if I were skydiving in Bolivia and it fell out of my pocket, or if I just dropped it down a storm drain — would all of my books be lost, too?

The arguments for getting a reader were solid. You could buy and download ebooks in seconds, and store thousands of them on the device. But the suggestion that we would suddenly have more room in our house because we no longer needed bookshelves was ridiculous. Our family has hundreds of books, and we’re not going to get rid of them just because we’re now capable of replacing them with an electronic version.

What about this idea that we’d no longer have to kill trees to make paper for publishing? More trees would mean more oxygen, and cleaner air. Technological progress and back to nature! But is it true? Thirty years ago, few people had printers in their homes. Today, we have two laser printers, a copier, and a fax machine, all churning out reams of paper every year. Once a week we open our front door and find yet another bundle of printed store flyers that we will probably not look at. Between 1988 and 2008, the number of magazines published in the United States increased dramatically. True, newspaper circulation is dropping in the US, but worldwide, it is not.

It seems that, at least for the foreseeable future, we will continue our use of dead trees. And this is another example of where we fail at predicting trends. We tend to see options as either-or, as though we’re going to choose one thing and completely reject the other. I don’t know what the typical reaction was to the first printed books, but I bet there was a good deal of despair and hand-wringing. Mass production of books? It will cheapen the medium. Quality will decline in favor of quantity. We’ll lose the art of publishing. Was that the result? To some extent I guess the book as a unique work of art was lost, but the net effect can only be described as positive. When motion pictures first appeared, many people predicted the end of live theater. That didn’t happen. When television arrived, followed by the VCR, the death of film was forecast. Wrong again.

Can an ebook reader ever replace the experience of holding a bound volume, turning its pages, feeling the texture of the paper and the sheer weight of the thing? No, but not everyone values that sensory aspect of reading. Some people will use reading devices exclusively. Others will cling to their paper books, refusing to even consider the use of the little plastic boxes. Most of us will incorporate both into our lives, continuing to buy and read traditional books while jiggling things around to make room for the newcomer.

I will get an ebook reader — Kindle or something else — sooner or later. But I will also keep buying printed books. It won’t be one or the other. My choices will depend on circumstances. The electronic device will mean convenience, portability, instant gratification, speed. But our home will always be filled with books. Clunky and colorful, those books, and endlessly patient: they sit on shelves, unopened and unnoticed, sometimes waiting years for the chance to perform. But they’re always ready. No batteries to charge, no wireless network to access. I don’t see them as dead trees; I see them as minds alive with ideas, images, stories, and knowledge. The medium still works, and will always work, no upgrade required.

Paper or plastic? Yes, please.

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