The March of Progress
The ebook is going to take over. It is inevitable. This essay in The Millions, by Mark O’Connell convinced me. It is very convincing. It also helped me get a handle on something that I have been thinking about a lot but have been unable to articulate. At issue here is something bigger than books. It is about us.
“The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern.”
“The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake.”
“history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.”
I see the logic at work here. Not only that, I recognize it. I recognize myself in it. This article was written by someone who really loves books. Really. Someone who is sad to see them go, but ultimately someone who has been forced to admit that using an e-reader is more convenient than sticking to real books. I do not agree, but when I look at it from this perspective, I realize that I easily could. I know this same phenomenon has happened in other spheres (music, transportation etc.) and I have not even batted an eye. Old cars mean nothing to me. I actually like booking my own flights. I do not mourn the loss of the CD or the vinyl record. Cassette tapes were pretty cool (I am a child of the 80s after all) but no one misses rewinding. But now, for the first time this dynamic is touching something I love and care deeply about, and I am freaking out. I worry about books as physical objects. I am terrified of living in a world where I might have to read on a “device” unless I want to go book-diving in a novelty shop.
I recognize that it has come down to a matter of convenience. For me, the convenience of an e-reader does not outweigh the desire (the need?) to have a real physical book in hand. But who knows, maybe one day it will. Even if it does, however, I feel like there are bigger questions that need to be asked. Should we embrace something just because it is more convenient? Is it possible that in doing so we are losing more than we gain? Are books really nothing more that “heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful things”?
I don’t like what ebooks are doing to real books, but I do understand that it is what is in the books that really matters. Some argue that as long as people are still reading we shouldn’t care about how they read. And if anything, it seems like people are even reading more – e-reader devices and ebook sales are very high and seem to be growing. Some people paint a very rosy picture, and I think to a certain extent they are right. After all, just because the form a book takes is evolving, does not mean that the content of books will as well. People could have said the same thing about the book and printing press when they replaced handwritten manuscripts. In fact, they did, at least according to George Eliot. In Romola, the wise (cranky?) old scholar Bardo has a few choice words for the printing press, then new as a nook:
“What hired amanuensis can be equal to the scribe who loves the words that grow under his hand, and to whom an error or indistinctness in the text is more painful than a sudden darkness or obstacle across his path? And even those mechanical printers who threaten to make learning a base and vulgar thing – even they must depend on the manuscript over which we scholars have bent with that insight into the poet’s meaning which is closely akin to the mens divinor (more godlike mind) of the poet himself; unless they would flood the world with grammatical falsities and inexplicable anomalies that would turn the very fountain of Parnassus into a deluge of poisonous mud.”
This griping sounds familiar, and when I read it recently, it was kind of reassuring. “See,” I told myself, “people have always felt this way when new technology threatens something they care about. Nothing to worry about.” After all, Bardo was wise, but he was also blind. How silly it was of him to worry about the advent of books!
Yes, the book as we know it was once new, and yes it replaced the old system of transmitting and storing information. So why latch on to something that is nothing more than a part of the process, one link in the chain? And why stop the progress here? Why not go back to hand-written manuscripts? Or a hammer and chisel for that matter?
These are good questions. It is arbitrary to want to stop the process here, and part of me wants to stop it here because this is where I am most comfortable. But also, I am not so sure about the idea of a process at all. Who says that we are in a process? And if we are, who says that the process is leading us towards something good? That is the narrative, the unending march of progress that takes us from darkness to light. It seems like a pretty big assumption to me. Some might even call it naïve, especially almost 100 years after August 1914. But who can argue with results? Look around you, everything is faster, more powerful and more efficient, and this is unquestionably a good thing. Right? Apparently the answer is yes, at least when it comes to our gadgets.
Yes, the book was new at one time, and it replaced the handwritten manuscript. But it also did more than that – it changed our way of thinking. The arrival of the book had very real, tangible consequences on our world. Political and social consequences, religious consequences, even (dare I say it) epistemological consequences. According to Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, the printing press helped bring about the birth of nationalism. The Protestant Reformation would have been impossible without it. It helped spark political movements and revolutions that have shaped the world as we know it today. It is probably not a coincidence that one of the first providers of ebooks was called the Project Gutenberg. They knew they were onto something big.
It is possible that the ebook and the internet and the diffusion of writing through electronic means has already started to do the same. It is certainly striking to witness the elevated status, in recent years, of blogs and tweets, and their role in driving political events. Maybe all of this change will be for the good, for the enlightenment of humanity. I hope so. But I think we need to at least recognize that a change is happening. We can’t just pretend that switching over to an e-reader is no big deal; that it is exactly like having lots of books on your shelf, but it just takes up less room. It is a big deal. It may be a change that is inevitable, but it still has consequences. And I think it is worthwhile to at least acknowledge that not all change is good by virtue of it being new. There is the possibility, however faint, that the content of books will be changed, and not just the way we read them.
Then again, as we change, our books will change. That is part of life.
I just can’t shake the feeling that we are rushing to embrace something that is huge, something that we don’t really understand, Sorcerer’s Apprentice style. Pandora would have been a better name than Kindle, had it not already been taken by a different program that has similarly revolutionized the world of music on the radio. The box has been opened. There is no turning back. Fine, but I think we should at least try to gauge what we are losing in the process. The printing press brought a lot of changes, and many of them were very good. But things were lost as well. If you don’t think anything of value was lost, take a look at some illuminated manuscripts.
Not all change is good, and even change that might seem good at first can have unfortunate, unforeseen consequences. Whoever first thought of the assembly line probably had nothing but good intentions, and the division of labor was a great time saver. But it changed the way we work forever, and not only those who work in a factory. The machine was supposed to help us, but instead we became a part of the machine. The value of craftsmanship went out the window, people became replaceable (by other people, by machines), and new methods of exploitation became not only possible but the norm.
The assembly line is a good example, because it also changed the way we do other things as well. It changed the way we eat, for example. Obviously, eating at McDonalds is more convenient than going shopping and cooking at home. And don’t even mention the hassle of growing your own food – heaven forbid! McDonalds is quick, cheap and most of all, easy. You don’t even have to get your of your car. Drive through, kids get a toy, you get a McWhatever and everyone is happy. But I think we can all agree that no matter how convenient it would be to eat at McDonalds every day, it would be a disaster for our health, our family, our culture and our world. Nourishment is not something that can be measured by output or turnover, and a kitchen should not be an assembly line.
The argument of convenience does not work with the book. At least not for me. Reading on a device it is not more convenient than reading a real book. If it was, I would probably feel differently. But for me, interacting with the text is just as important as reading the text. I like to write in the margins. No, I have to write in the margins. I read with a pen in hand. A pen, not a pencil (writing with a pencil = lack of commitment).
Over the years I have developed a personalized shorthand, a whole language of words, marks, scribbles and abbreviations that help me catalogue and process what I read. If I can’t read with a pen, I don’t read. On a plane, if the turbulence is too bad, I put the book away and wait for clearer skies. For me, writing in a book is a part of reading a book. This is also why I don’t borrow from libraries very often. Not only does it help me figure out what I think about what I am reading, it also preserves it for the future. I have a terrible memory, and if I can’t write in a book I am reading, I might as well not even read it. A few years later I won’t remember a thing.
I know you can type in a note on most e-readers, and I don’t care. The satisfaction I get from reading a beautiful passage, underlining it, reading on and then going back and adding an exclamation point next to it because underling it just wasn’t enough is something I treasure, and something that no e-reader will ever be able to recreate.
Is more always better? When we recently moved to Niger I faced the unenviable task of choosing which books I should bring with me and which to leave behind. Heart-wrenching. I brought a small library with me. It is not much, and I would have brought more if I could. I started getting worried while packing, thinking, “What if I run out of books to read!” That is when people (friends and family) started putting Kindle pressure on me. But now that my books are all unpacked, and I am thinking more clearly, it is obvious that even my small library contains more books than I will read in a year, and after a year I can restock. So I came up with a plan: For the first time in my life, I will read more books than I buy. I will read the books that I brought with me, and once I finish all of them (if I finish all of them), then I will start to worry about what to read next.
What would an e-reader have to offer me that my limited-yet-lovingly-assembled library does not? Unlimited choice? No thanks. The thought of it alone is a bit overwhelming. Sure walking around with the entire Western cannon in your pocket is pretty cool, a technological feat. But really, it serves no practical purpose. While you can be reading a couple books at once, you can still only read one book at a time.
What about the ability to get the newest books as soon as they come out? I don’t do that anyway. Unless there is a specific new book I am after, I get my books from used bookstores. Also, I can’t stand to read a book when everyone else is reading it and talking about it. I like to wait a year or two. I finally read Freedom right around the time when everyone stopped talking about it, and not because I didn’t have access to a copy. Don’t get me wrong, I like being a part of the conversation and knowing what everyone is talking about, but I don’t like feeling like I have to read Freedom (or 1Q84. Or The Marriage Plot) right now, just because it is new. What if I’m busy reading Flaubert or Dostoevsky? They were here first. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read Freedom. You should. But do so in your own time. The marketing industry that we are subjected to foists things on us all the time, but we still have a choice of if, when and how we consume them, and that is a choice I am not willing to relinquish.
Instant gratification is great, but is it really gratifying? If that is our moral, we are in trouble. Maybe we should learn to live within limits. Maybe limitations are not a curse. That is something I have been learning, especially here in Africa. Yes, an e-reader would be convenient. But if convenience is the most important thing for you, then why are you reading books in the first place? The world is full of reality TV shows to watch.
The ebook may be inevitable, but I am doing what I can to halt its advance. I know that sounds judgmental. I don’t judge others. If it works for you, fine. I am happy to live and let live. But I can’t be neutral on this issue because the ebook is aggressively killing off something I love. I cannot, in good conscience, contribute to it. I don’t want my reading life to be dependent on my battery life.