By Juan Cole
I’m a bibliophile of the first water. I have spent what seems half my life in bookstores all over the world. Some readers praise the creamy texture of a well-bound volume published on good paper. But it is less noted that old books smell—of the places they’ve been, of dust, molds and fungi, of the hand sweat of former owners. Opening one is sort of like lifting the lid on a tantalizing curry still being cooked. But I am making the switch to e-books even so, and they are changing the way I read and even what I read.
For those baby boomers in their 60s, old-style books do have substantial drawbacks. Print books are often big and heavy. I’ve had back problems and find it difficult to sit for hours with a doorstop in my lap. Carrying a tome on an airplane is literally a pain. As you age, your vision declines, and all the bifocals in the world won’t necessarily let you read small type comfortably. And then, the bane of the bibliophile is the bulkiness of the thousands of volumes you accumulate in a lifetime. You run out of room at home, or at least room your spouse will let you dedicate to yet more bookcases. Some collectors may be so obsessive that they carefully catalog their own private libraries at home, but mine is strewn haphazardly across bookshelves purchased over 30 years, and I can’t always find what I’m looking for.
An e-book reader such as an iPad equipped with a Kindle or Google Books app resolves many of these problems. It is relatively light and portable. Text size and brightness can be adjusted. (People who complain about iPads being backlit don’t seem to realize there is a “sepia” background and that brightness can be changed.) A couple of thousand books can be accommodated as active files on Kindle and many more can be archived. Stanza, Google Books and other applications are virtually infinite in their capaciousness. Books can be stored in the cloud when not in use. On your tablet, books can be listed by author, title or how recently they’ve been read.
But beyond solving the back, eye and space problems of the geriatric set, e-books offer interesting functionalities. You can do keyword searches. Most programs allow bookmarking and margin notes. The Kindle app even allows the collectivity of readers to underline favorite passages together. Some readers attach dictionaries, as with the Kindle app for iPads, and even foreign-language dictionaries. Looking up recondite words may become more common if it is as easy as tapping on them, and this sort of dictionary work is an aid in reading books in other languages.
The tablet book readers are only a platform. It is content that is important. But the two may work together to effect some interesting changes. Google Books are a potentially major change in our reading lives, and the Google Books app for smartphones and tablets gives the reader access to a wide range of out-of-copyright works for free.
I know many Americans do not read any books once they’re out of school or college. But some do, and what they read has been shaped not only by changing tastes but by availability. The availability consideration is being revolutionized. Moreover, the younger generation is actually made up of voracious readers on the Internet, but they favor short-form writing that is easily accessible, such as blog entries and Op-Eds. Reprints at Web anthology magazines such as Zite or Flipboard of classic essayists in easily digested excerpts is now increasingly possible, and it might take only a few passages to go viral to provoke more sustained interest in the classics.
I have been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s two-volume “Essays” on my iPad via Google Books. His remarks at the opening of the piece on “Politics” are justly renowned but always worth considering again:
“In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it. … ”
This passage could not be more urgent and relevant in this election season. It should be repeatedly quoted to those young conservatives who are always throwing Ronald Reagan in our faces as if he set immutable, or necessarily wise, precedents. It is also worth contemplating by any who think that the Occupy Wall Street movement is on a fool’s errand in seeking to compel the rotten oak trees of privilege and impunity to gyrate around a demand for justice and a rule of law.
Could I have found the essay at my local bookstore? I am no longer sure. I could have rooted around in used bookstores. Of course, it is likely in my public library, and, being at a university with a research library, I could have always gotten hold of it. Those are not advantages everyone has. In any case, the ease of simply downloading it cannot be beaten.
The combination of tablet book readers and a massive free library of out-of-copyright Google Books raises an interesting possibility. Will there be a revival of interest, among bookworms at least, in pre-20th century authors because of their new accessibility and the low cost of entry? How many still read Emerson beyond the essay on “Self-Reliance” they are assigned in school? But in many ways he is the foundational American thinker, and it can be only a good thing for millions to have him at their fingertips.
Flickr / The Daring Librarian (CC-BY-SA)