Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Virtual Literature

Gingerly, I reached out. The slate gray plastic was cool to the touch. I picked it up, and in spite of its stunning slimness, marvelled at how light the thing was. The only light came from a small glowing button at the bottom. I slid it, and a world opened before me.Like magic, the images on screen shifted, the image becoming a negative of itself before fading altogether, replaced by a shelffull of books, for my consideration.
When was the last time I felt such pleasure? Maybe when I was a kid, burying my nose between the freshly minted, crisp white pages of a new book and deeply inhaling the smell of new paper, gum and stories. Or perhaps it was walking into my school library the first time we were allowed to choose our own books (before that, we were handed a book apiece by a librarian. If you wanted something different or had already read that one, tugh luck kid, put your head on the desk and prepare for an hour's worth of tear - inducing boredom.). Of course, books still get me excited, but this was different, this was bigger than one book. This was the promise of a library in my hands. This was the idea of my favorite author's entire bibliography at my fingertips. This was evolution of the best kind, at least, to a lover of words.
"Ah, but don't you think technology is becoming too important? That it's taking over the art?" ask some people. The ones who are not so polite (or are loth to accept anything invented after their birth) sneer and say "Yeah right. As if anything can replace paper books. Well, I prefer to stick to REAL books, thank you very much." polishing their monocles while they do so. Or they would, if they had monocles.Well to the first group, I say "NO!!!!! First of all, stop referring to ebook readers as 'technology'. Or do you think paper books are found growing fully printed from magical trees? Everything is technology. We live in technology. Old technology does not mean it's not technology? And secondly, how does a medium take away the magic of a story? Or the importance of a well researched journalistic piece? Technology cannot convert gold to trash or vice versa. It couldn't when the words were printed on wood pulp, and it cannot now, when the words appear on a screen encased in plastic or metal."

To the second group I say "Pphhhbbbbttttttt!!!!!!". Maturity is not my strong suit.

Now sentiment is another issue. Of course I understand the sentiment people have for paper books. The brightly colored covers, the way racks of books add warmth to a room, the shuffling sound of paper, and above all, how the very touch of a physical book can take you away to a different place in your mind, a place no more real than those e-ink words floating on the screen of an ebook reader, but still more solid than reams bound in leather. Those emotions are perhaps the strongest reason why paper books aren't dying a faster, surer death. But to lament that children a generation or two later will not feel the pleasure our generation felt gripping a paper book is pure soda water. Yes, perhaps they will never know the heft and touch of a hardcover volume, but do the naysayers realise the pleasures they are missing out on even as they dig their heels and close their eyes? THEY don't know the pleasure of carrying a library full of books in the device as light as some cellphones. They don't allow themselves to feel the joy of reading whatever they want to, whenever they want to at the touch of a button. Ebook readers offer them universes, and they look away, because they don't like the window they are looking through. It's not missing the forest for the trees, it's missing the forest because the path has been paved.Our grandchildren will know so many of the joys that we cannot imagine because they have not even been invented yet, so why turn away from the ones that DO exist.
Of course, there is something to be said for physicality. But mediums change. Very few people complained about the cassete tape giving way to the Laser Disc, which then bowed to the DVD, which in turn was replaced by Blu Ray and digital distribution. Audio CDs were replaced by MP3s without a murmur. So why do so many people have a problem of change in medium when books are involved? My guess is, unlike the previously mentioned changes, books and how we read them have not evolved in a long long time. It's about getting set in your ways, rather than any real, tangible pleasure. After all, while the evolution from cassettes to CDs and more have been relatively smooth, people who were used to their big black LPs still hold on to them like some badge of honour and no argument of superior sound quality and convenience can shake them. Isn't it simply because LPs were around for a very long time before cassettes came in to replace them? I think so.
As for me, I have loved books ever since I knew what books were. But I have loved BOOKS. Words arranged to form stories and ideas, legends and songs. I have loved those castles built using that most potent of all bricks - language. The physical medium can change, and I believe that objectively, it will change only for the better, but what won't change is the sheer joy of getting lost in that special place where my mind meets the authors. The rest is just....extra. So I am excited by ebooks, I am thrilled by the idea, not because they are the next step in technology, but because of what it means to me as a reader. The stars have aligned, the time is right and the world is seeing the biggest shake up in publishing since Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg thought engraving letters in reverse, smearing them with ink and stamping them on paper would be a pretty neat idea.