Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book or MacBook? (or Kindle?)

Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,

Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,

Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;

For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,

And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.

"Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand", Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

This weekend I have been watching the Miami Book Fair International 20081 on C-SPAN2.2 In an interview on Saturday, Mitchell Kaplan (book fair chairperson) made a comment to the effect that, even in the growing shift of eyes of the reading public from printed pages to electronic screens, books still draw consumers.

Some might be tempted to say that's because the quality of the content in many books is superior to what can be found via the Internet in digital form. But — in principle — this is nonsense. There is nothing in principle preventing any book content from being delivered to your MacBook (or Amazon Kindle3 or whatever device comes next).

No, there is something else that will keep books alive: their physical materiality. The unopened book is a three-dimensional cube you can carry around — you can let it tell people what you're cool with. Opening it reveals paper pages that have a certain sensual texture; you don't get the same tactile experience with a glassy computer screen. Its inked words have a physical presence that is missing in mere pixels. You can curl up with — and curl — a book; that's not easy to do with a MacBook. (Although a Kindle comes a bit closer in this regard, it still will not have the material, physical, presence of the printed book — though I think it could nicely replace the unwieldy, fingers-smudging printed newspaper.)

It is true, for example, you can read Leaves of Grass electronically and do the things computers can do but books can't, like searching for keywords.4 But holding that 8 x 5.35 x 2.3 inch, 1.72 pound physical instantiation5 and rustling through its leaves is still, and will continue to be, an experience apart.

Physical books are sensual beings.

1. book fair home
2. schedule: Saturday, Sunday
3. Amazon Kindle: video
4. search Leaves of Grass
5. Leaves of Grass, (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)