Check out this brilliant technology. It’s called a ‘book’

I’ve begun to devour physical, printed books again – but not for the obvious reasons

Photograph: Keith Goldstein/Photographer’s Choice/Getty

Photograph: Keith Goldstein/Photographer’s Choice/Getty

 

I have started reading books again. Printed copies, I mean. Pick them up, thumb through them, read the blurb, put them down or take them to the till sorts of books. Books you start when they are pristine and crisp and eventually finish when they are dog-eared and paw-marked.

Books that when you splash tea on page 143 you can’t rub it off with your sleeve.

Books whose purchase is dependent on their weight and the size of your bag.

Books that when left behind stay left behind and can’t be yanked into existence through another device.

Printed books that when you finish you’re faced with the conundrum of whether to keep for show on the shelf, loan out or drop down to the charity shop, where an assistant can look from your self-righteousness to shelves already buckling under second-hand books and give you the singular look that can only mean, “Oh, great – we really needed a 20th copy of Life of Pi .”

I hadn’t abandoned printed books entirely, but I had drifted towards the phone, the screen, and liked reading on those. Still do. I haven’t reverted to print because it is a better technology than digital. It is not. It is what it is: durable, useful, practical, portable. It is far from the protozoa of the hacked symbols in stone, but it is not the irreplaceable, unbeatable iteration it once seemed.

In the US and UK – but not Ireland – digital sales helped ensure that overall book sales jumped significantly in 2012. US digital book sales rose a further 43 per cent last year. People buy digital books because they like them. They buy books in different formats because they have a choice no generation before them has had.

Nor have I started reading printed books again because of some tugging nostalgia for the printed word. In music there has been a bounce-back effect, in which a certain amount of people tried new technology (digital) and realised they liked the old one (vinyl) enough to keep using it occasionally.

But such numbers will always be joined by a handful who consciously swim
against the tide for fashion
or Luddism. (This may even happen to newspapers at
some point.)

Yet nostalgia is not enough to save an industry. In fact it’s more likely to kill it, to breed stasis, stagnation, rot. Nostalgia in its most poisonous form can be the idea that tradition must endure. (See previous reference to newspapers.)

I have not returned to printed books because of a fetishistic impulse. Curiously, digital has taken the edges off such sentimentality, that long-held reluctance to part with even the least enjoyable book because it seems one step away from an endorsement of totalitarianism.

Although, even still, it comes with latent qualms. I had to throw out boxes of mouse-dropping-riddled books recently. Admitting to dumping books still feels a little like leaving a puppy on the side of the road.

Yet I have come to realise that I’ve begun to savour printed books again as a reaction against modernity. Not as a Luddite or traditionalist but because of their simplicity. A colleague this week mentioned the problem with reading on a tablet: it has several competing windows too tempting to go unexplored. And I realised that this is why I was reading print again: because when I read a book that is all I am doing.

It is a single-purpose piece of technology. It will not ring. It will not beep. It will not remind you of messages received or apps updated. It will not be merely another layer of information temporarily surfacing over strata of email browsers, web pages, Temple Run, Temple Run 2, Angry Birds, iTunes, Flipboard, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Sky, push notifications and other downloaded books you bought and feel guilty for not reading.

With a physical book the only competing windows are the ones offering a view outside of the train carriage.

When I read a printed novel I am reading a single story, its 300 pages bordered by a cover and a blurb and a quote from another author declaring it to be the most extraordinary work of literature he has
read since the book he gave a quote for earlier that afternoon.

Do books read better on paper compared with on screen? No. But there is a purity to a physical book, a focus to the act and a
simplicity to the technology that confirm its dual benefit:
as an escape into fiction and
as a refuge from the torrent
of fact.


shegarty@irishtimes.com
@shanehegarty

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