It has been happening frequently since I started writing this blog. Friends and family sending me little snippets from newspapers and magazines that they think I might find interesting. It happened just this morning in fact. A co-worker of mine who has become a good friend and frequent blog reader forwarded me an article from the New York Times Book Review called “The Way We Read Now.” The article discusses the ubiquitous new mediums on which we consume the written word. On smartphones, e-readers, tablets, and the like.
The argument over the best way to read has become extraordinarily polarizing as of late. Proponents of the e-reader insist that tangible books are out of fashion and the back-lit tablet is too hard on the eyes for long-term reading. Fans of the tablet insist that the e-reader is too simplistic - because of course we need to be able to listen to music, watch a movie, send e-mails, and surf the web while we read. And most everyone, it seems, agrees that actual books - the ones we see on our bookshelves and hold in our hands - are going out of style.
And it makes me a little sad. As I have written before, my most important milestones are marked by the books I read. Real books. Tangible ones. First day of college. My first grown-up apartment. Getting married. First job. Deaths. Births. Life. It makes me sad to think that my own kids might experience these most pivotal milestones with e-readers and tablets - rather than dogeared pages - in tow. And if that is, in fact, the case, will they look back and remember the events clearly? Or will the whole experience be viewed through the haze of blue light emanating from their device of choice?
It’s not that I don’t understand e-books. There is something to be said for having hundreds of books, and the ability to order more with the press of a button, at your fingertips. My shoulders - aching from years of carrying around bags full of romance novels - would probably appreciate the break. About a year ago, my wonderful husband actually downloaded a file that contained every single book that Nora Roberts has ever written. He loaded them onto a iPad for me, which I carried around for a few weeks. Amazing as it was to have all of her books at my immediate disposal, I could never quite master the art of reading off a piece of electronic equipment. It wasn’t long before my real books started sneaking their way back into my bag.
I still carry around the iPad. And I love it. But I don’t read books on it. Instead, my iPad and my books have become fast friends in the center pocket of my favorite bag.
There is something else to the “e-book” vs. “actual book” argument, though, that I rarely hear addressed. I wrote awhile back about one of my favorite commuting activities - checking out the book selection of my fellow subway riders. What I didn’t mention then is that this honored pastime is growing more and more difficult with each passing day. More often than not my subways are buses are filled commuters reading books under the Kindle’s veil of anonymity.
And this makes me sad too. While I will rarely join a book club for reasons far too complex to discuss right now, I love to see what people are reading. If they are reading something new to me, I sometimes copy down the title to add to my collection. If they are reading something I have read, I wonder if their opinion will match mine. Occasionally I have hovered over a Kindle owner’s shoulder, trying my very best to catch a glimpse of the book title that hovers at the top of the e-book. But more often than not, my efforts are met with a searing look from the owner, wondering why I am committing this gross violation of her personal space. Message received.
I am sure that the accessibility of e-books have created readers out of people that might otherwise never have discovered the power of the written word. But still I wonder. I wonder if e-books are laying the foundation for a generation of kids who never touch an actual book. Who never feel the thrill of opening a shiny new cover to reveal the story inside. Who never experience the sweet sorrow of closing a book upon completion and laying it on a shelf to be read again on some future date. Who grow up choosing a book from a list of files, rather than from the organized chaos of a positively brimming bookshelf.
The New York Times article ends with a poignant quote by Anna Quindlen who once wrote: “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” I would be too.