Superficially, today's post doesn't appear to be age-related unless you consider this: that young people, those born – oh, let's say since 1990 or so, are probably more comfortable reading on a screen than you and I.
And, I can't prove this but it could be that they have a different relationship with books and with reading than I do. Maybe they don't have the same reverence for physical books that I grew up with and is still important to me. There is something about leafing through a new book while anticipating some good entertainment or what I might learn that just isn't the same with a book on a screen.
Even so, when Amazon released its first Kindle e-reader in late 2007, I was an enthusiastic early adopter.
Although I regularly used such online services as Project Gutenberg to download electronic version of out-of-copyright books, with them I had been stuck reading on the computer. Kindle allowed me to easily read in bed, lounging on the sofa or anywhere I wanted to be - just like a "real" book.
Further, buying electronic books – less expensive, by the way, than the dead tree variety – allowed me to believe I was helping to save forests and by extension, the planet. I'll get back to that in a moment.
When it was released, I upgraded to the Kindle Fire, a tablet computer combined with e-reader but quickly gave it up; it weighs so much that I feel like I'm trying to hold up half the Encyclopedia Britannica.
It is approaching a decade now that I have been buying and reading e-books but that has been falling off in the past couple of years, probably longer. Mostly these days, the e-books I buy are light entertainment, detective novels for example, and a few others that don't require serious thought.
Not that I stopped buying paper books altogether but I learned to make a distinction that I adhere to more completely now. If it's politics, history, ageing, biography, literary fiction, etc., I purchase hard copies or borrow them from the library. The reasons are almost all about personal convenience. Here are some of them:
• I like knowing the size of a book. I have a sense of my time commitment when I see that it is two inches thick. Six hundred electronic pages doesn't mean much to me especially when a larger font will increase the count to 800 pages and smaller one reduce it to 400.
• If I want to check something earlier in a book, I usually have a sense, with paper, of how far back it is or which chapter it is in and whether it's on the left or right page. That's not possible on a screen.
• Also, I can't use a finger or two to hold my places in an electronic book while I check a fact or thought or idea elsewhere among the pages.
• A book, as long as it's not too thick, rests comfortably in the hand. The thin Kindle, in its way, is as hard to hold as the Fire and my hand begins to ache after 15 or 20 minutes.
• I mark up and highlight books I own as I read. Yes, I know there is a highlight function in e-readers, but it is not anywhere near as convenient to use nor as satisfying as wielding that wide, yellow Sharpie.
And when I'm done, I like placing a book I've finished among its kind on the shelf. When I pull one off a month later or even a year, I have a sense, skimming through the pages, of what markings I want to read again.
Other times, especially when many years have passed, I'm surprised at what is highlighted, what I thought was important then compared to now. It's a way, sometimes, of measuring how my thinking has changed over time.
I like having my books around me. I like going through them. Just a couple of weeks ago, I pulled the entire library of several hundred books about ageing out of their shelves to dust and reorder the mess I'd made of their organization over the past several years.
It was satisfying (and useful) beyond the tidiness factor. As I touched each one, I was reminded of what I like about it (or not), what I learned, what I might want to re-read. My books are my friends.
As I have returned to reading more paper books than electronic; and despite so many email signatures admonishing me not to print this message; and even with the exorbitant price of ink, I have also been printing more online information to read on paper. It's just easier, especially if it is longer than few paragraphs. Most of the book reasons above apply too and I'm not sure but I think my eyes don't tire as quickly.
While I was considering all this recently, I ran across a LinkedIn post from Jeneane Sessum, a smart women I used to kind of know online and have not been in touch with for a long time. It's titled, Let There be Print, and she has had some similar feelings:
”I have experienced a renewed urge in the last week to print things out, literally. Pretty much anything. Health information, college ideas for our daughter, pictures form old year books accessible online, and photos of our aging boxer Bando,” she writes.
Jeneane also clarifies the environmental questions about paper and printing for me:
”...this transition from physical to digital exhaust has certainly not solved the planet's sustainability challenges. The energy demands of computing give rise to new problems that require further innovation.
“Simply put: We won't solve climate change simply by bypassing the print process. In contrary, continuing to build the physical world in ways that connect us to future generations is by definition good stewardship.”
While my reasons for returning to print – in books and online – are personal and related to my comfort, you can tell from that last phrase that Jeneane has larger, more universal and important concerns about losing both our private and our world heritage to future digital technology that will not be able to read the encoding of current storage media.
”Don't abandon what is of value to your family, your intellect, your heart or your soul to the digital domain,” she pleads. “That's where printing comes in. It's what we can do for now, for ourselves and our families, and maybe for future generations and civilizations...
“We have a chance at a new beginning in this digital 'middle of things,' an opportunity to not let go of what we have created and will create, a chance to remain caretakers of what is of real value to this world, and a responsibility to preserve our humanity.”
She's right, you know. As elders, we who recall, probably more than the youngest generation can, the value – and pleasure - of hard copies should heed Jeneane's call to action.
Also, maybe even Amazon, inventor of the Kindle, has had an inkling that people are not letting paper books go anywhere. This week in Seattle the company opened its first retail book store:
You will find Jeneane Sessum's full story here and it is worth the read.