Maybe it’s a character flaw, but nostalgia for a technology puzzles me. My bewilderment has last all my adult life, and now, with the all the sentimental preference for paper books over ebooks, it returns to me stronger than ever.
I first became aware of other people’s technology nostalgia when I jumped from a typewriter to a word processor. Did I miss working with carbon paper, or having the choice of redoing a page because of a spelling mistake or getting liquid paper all over everything? Not for a moment. Revision was so much easier on a computer that I barely looked back. The IBM Selectric that I kept in a back closet just in case languished in obscurity for a decade before I realized that I would never use it.
Yet much to my surprise, many people started romanticizing the typewriter. I could understand veteran writers who after several decades were reluctant to mess with their creative processes. But other people insisted that the hum of the computer kept them from concentrating (apparently the even louder hum of an electric typewriter didn’t). Their thoughts, they insisted, were geared to the tap of the keys (as though a century of using typewriters could have produced any significant natural selection in favor of them).
Soon, distressed typefaces that mimicked typewriters with old ribbons or out of alignment keys became a fashion in graphical design. You still see these typefaces occasionally today, a sentimental attachment to all the inefficiencies of the old technology added with more ingenuity than sense to the new technology.
Now, with journalists constantly trumpeting the death of the paper book, the same thing is happening. Suddenly, people are forgetting the tendency of paperbacks to fall apart after one reading (assuming pages didn’t start flying away before then), and talking about the shape and construction of the book – which is largely an accident of cheap production – as something to get sentimental over. Again, I wonder what they are rattling on about.
Not that ebook readers are perfect technologies. You have to learn exactly how hard to tap a paper if they use a touch screen, and how often to refresh so that you can turn a page without a pause interrupting your reading. Every reader, too, could use twice the resolution, even if they have improved considerably from a decade ago. I admit, too, that the end of the standard two page spread leaves me wondering what to do with my spare hand, and that a single page looks odd to my typographically-trained eye.
The mistake that people make is imagining that the medium is the book– which isn’t true for either paper books or ebooks. If it were, then to get the full experience of Catullus or Cicero, we would have to read them on papyrus scrolls. Shakespeare would have to be read on vellum, and Jonathan Swift and George Eliot on rag paper. All of these are simply media.
The book – the play, the oration or the novel – is the words and how they are put together. And that doesn’t change, regardless of whether we read a clay tablet or have the words beamed directly into our brains. If we remember a particular technology fondly, I suspect that it’s because we transfer the pleasure of the words to the medium in which we read them.
Personally, I neither welcome nor decry the rise of ebooks. They have their points, such as reduced storage space or the ability to change fonts, but that’s not what I notice when I read, any more than I notice the convenience and portability of paperbacks, or the smallness of the loss if they fall into the bathtub. When I read, what I notice is the story or the arguments, and the skill in word use. Should I live long enough to see ebooks replaced by something else, I’ll use that something else, just as I use ebooks now.
Like those who romanticized typewriters, the people currently anticipating the end of paper books have lost sight of what’s important when we read. Maybe they’re just afraid of anything that’s new, but the medium is a minor issues so long as we can read without being distracted by inefficiency or inconvenience. What matters is the words. Always.