HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
December 4, 2006, Herald Journal

Books are more than words


During this holiday season, the Christmas wish lists of some technophiles include devices that were designed to replace books.

These devices come in a few different formats, but the basic concept is to allow consumers to download electronic versions of books and read them on a screen.

One of the new devices boasts “an impressive, paper-like display.”

That is like saying the pallid, watered-down, vegetable oil-based slop they have been trying to sell us for years is just like real butter. It isn’t, and no amount of marketing can make it taste any better.

With books, as with butter (and a whole lot of other things), I prefer the real thing.

The new devices claim to offer more convenience than traditional books.

In some ways, this is true. One model, for example, can store up to about 80 books, which could presumably be a convenience if one was to take a long trip, and had limited space to carry reading materials.

But, this convenience comes with a hefty price tag.

The devices can cost as much as $350. There are other, less expensive options available, but they typically offer less features and less memory.

To support the devices, companies have developed different digital formats into which they convert the text of selected books.

Manufacturers claim the digital versions of books cost about the same, or even less than traditional books, but that point is debatable.

In addition to discounts available on new books, there is a thriving global used book market, with tens of thousands of books available at a fraction of their original cost.

And, for those who are really concerned about their budget, there are still a few of those wonderful old institutions around called libraries.

Budgets have been reduced, and many libraries have struggled or been closed in recent years, but some are still around and are working hard to make books and other forms of information available to everyone.

There are some who believe that books, as we know them, are on the road to extinction, but these people are mistaken.

The problem with the notion that E-books will replace traditional books is that it shows a basic lack of understanding of books and of the relationship people have with them.

Books, in one form or another, have been around since about 3,500 BC, and there is a reason for this.

People love books, and this affection goes beyond the words inside.

Books have changed quite a bit since days when they were made using clay tablets or animal skins.

The development of paper and moveable type helped to make books available to the masses. Printing technology has changed a lot, too, making books even more accessible.

But change is not always a good thing, and digital files cannot replace traditional books.

Books can range from beautifully bound and illustrated editions that are meant to be kept and handed down for generations, to the inexpensive, bare-bones paperbacks that are designed for budget rather than beauty.

Even these inexpensive books, though, offer readers a different experience than a digital copy can provide.

My personal library numbers in the thousands, and many of these volumes are old friends.

I can pull a book off of the shelf, and be taken back to the time I acquired it.

There is something special about bringing home a new book and opening it for the first time.

There is a right and a wrong way to open a book, and book people handle their books with care and respect.

The binding, the typeface, and even the paper stock, all contribute to the reading experience.

There is something comforting about having shelves of books around the house.

If one is awakened in the small hours of the morning with a perplexing question that demands an answer, one can go to the shelf, and pull out a volume to find the required information.

Even the process of buying books is a pleasant and rewarding pastime.

Being a person with an unlimited thirst for information on a wide variety of subjects, coupled with a limited budget, I often turn to the used book market.

I spend many hours each year digging through the stacks in used book shops and library sales, and I am often rewarded with surprising treasures.

I especially enjoy unknown books by quality authors, or those with regional connections, and finding a rare or out-of-print book at a bargain price makes for a successful day.

Judging from the throngs of other bibliophiles I encounter at these events, I am not the only one who feels this way.

The range of available used books goes far beyond the “best seller” list at major chain stores.

These businesses are built on sales volume, not variety.

The available selection of E-books will also no doubt be limited, and limiting one’s reading choices to a best seller list is a bit like limiting one’s music choices to the current top 40.

In books, as in music, the real gems are often the more obscure and lesser known volumes.

E-books will never have the appeal of the real thing.

Settling down with a good book is one of life’s simple pleasures, and it is one that would simply not be as sweet if the book was replaced by a digital copy.

Books are warm and inviting. Electronics are cold and impersonal.

The words may be the same, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the aesthetic value of the real thing.

As long as people who are passionate about books are allowed to roam free, electronic books will remain a gimmick, and traditional books will continue to be a treasured part of our lives.