Why eBooks will never replace "traditional" books

I like Borders bookstores, I really do. I’ve written a couple of my favorite pieces at their café tables and found books while browsing that I would have otherwise missed. I’ve saved money with coupons that show up in my inbox, and for a time, Borders was my source for well-made inexpensive journals.

They sold cloth-bound books with two hundred blank, acid-free pages sewn in for under $10—a great value. They took a beating and held together.

I’ve even felt a bit sorry for Borders the same way I felt sorry for the fat kids in P.E. On the days we did physical fitness, they would finish last, wheezing and sweating, on the verge of combustion. They just couldn’t keep up. Panda bears and hippos aren’t built for speed, and neither were James and Kevin. Hands on their hips and blotchy red in the face, they were too winded to jog, let alone sprint, and no matter how loudly Coach Huddy yelled at them as they plodded through the orange cones, their body types and lethargic metabolisms weren’t changing.

Retail books sales have plummeted, and Borders bookstores are moving as fast as James and Kevin after a Papa John’s pizza party. Borders is going the way of the Dodo, and cassette tape.

So the marketing team sends out an email, and I can visualize the brainstorming session that generated the idea.

A dark-haired man in his late twenties wearing coffeeshop frames called the meeting to order. An observant fly on the wall would have noticed that his right eyelid twitched from caffeine overload.

The question up for discussion: How to promote Borders’ new eBook store?

Shoot, their online stores link to Amazon, and 4 million Kindles should guarantee a huge market for millions of titles, right?

The numbers are attractive. And the convenience. They should have stuck with the numbers and written something like “How many vampire books can you fit in your purse?” or “How much do the 100 Best Books ever written weigh? 10.2 ounces.”

Instead, Borders tried to go green and make a silly comparison:

“By going digital, you’re going green; there’s no paper needed for an eBook. But just like a traditional book, it’s yours to keep!”

Borders is targeting people who love to read books. They read books because books stimulate the mind, exercise the imagination, challenge the intellect. These readers want to visit their own Middle Earth, not Peter Jackson’s. They devour words the way James and Kevin devoured Lunchables and Dunkaroos.

They adore the tactile experience of reading books: glue, ink, and paper mingling into a nostalgic aroma; crisp, unmarked pages with a promise of entertainment and surprise; far-off or exotic places; scoundrels, cads, heroines, and lovers. Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Stephanie Meyer. Comic books and scriptures. Sonnets and Anime.

They revel in the cloud of sensations and experiences that accompany a good book: the harsh metallic whir of the espresso grinder and the rich, brown, earthy smell of coffee brewing; the rustle of papers and squeaking of chair legs in a lecture hall; moments suspended in time as a passage in a new book shatters an old opinion or belief.

We like to hold books while we read them because we are not disembodied minds. We are physical creatures who find immense pleasure in hefting the weight, running fingertips along the textures, underlining memorable sentences, highlighting whole paragraphs, writing notes in the margin, dog-earing pages, breaking in the spines, noticing the wear and tear from past reads, writing a note in the front and giving that delicious book to a friend. Not a new copy, but your beloved volume with its coffee rings, grease stains, messy handwriting, even bumps from dried tears. You take the book’s story and make it yours.

We appreciate the convenience that a Kindle offers, and we would like to save trees by cutting down on paper consumption.

But nothing—no gadget, interface, or promise of weightless convenience—will replace the experience. Have emails replaced handwritten letters delivered by the United States Postal Service? They enable us to connect at great distances. They have made communication easier, faster, but they haven’t improved our ability to relate to each other.

In fact, the time a handwritten letter requires is a testament to the sender’s sincerity. It becomes a token of affection, an archaic and touching sacrifice of efficiency, like horseback riding, vinyl records, and home-cooked meals.

Disembody books, or give them drab, homogenous housing, and you dampen their magic.

A motley company of friends, soulmates, and relics of past selves, my library tells my history. It sings an anthem of my heart and spirit, unfamiliar even to my family and dearest friends. They represent the expanding universe of my person.

You can know me, in part, by my books. I hope to return to them as an old man, to smile at my passionate scrawl in the margins, my terse arguments and emphatic agreements. I will be an old rattlesnake gazing at its youthful skins preserved on wooden shelves. Maybe I’ll still have fangs and venom, or maybe I will have finally learned how to love well.

“No paper needed for an eBook”?

That’s just the problem. I am no Luddite. I am no ornery contrarian. Sometimes, I’m even an early adopter of new technologies. I may even buy a Kindle or iPad one day.

I am aware that the moon has risen and the tide of eBooks is irresistible. But this e-newsletter from Borders does not arise out of concern for tree or the environment. It follows an economic trajectory.

So, Borders, don’t try to feed me malarkey about “just like a traditional book.” You may as well try to sell me porkless bacon for my health. The flavor is in the fat.

You can keep your files, binary code, convenience, and flaccid marketing. I’ll keep my “traditional” books and plant some trees. You can bury me with my ancient copy of Les Miserables with no publication date, my battered The Seven Storey Mountain paperback, and a couple of pages torn from that first thin copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

They can resurrect with me.

The bouncer at Thomas Merton’s parties in Paradise doesn’t accept plastic.

Comments Closed

4 Comments

  1. Posted July 9, 2010 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Would it help if the ebook reader looked more like a real book?

    At present, there is a big difference between the paper experience and the digital experience. I still prefer paper. As technology advances, the two experiences will converge just like it has for photography and there won’t be a discernible difference. Because new generations are growing up digital, paper will lose its novelty and go the way of the typewriter. This may not happen in our lifetime, but it will certainly happen sooner than most people expect.

  2. Austin L. Church
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I think you bring several astute insights to the subject. The appearance of a printed book might please people who cut their teeth on printed books, but new generations who never had a consistent print experience won’t have a strong basis for comparison, anymore than those of us who grew up using computers, not typewriters. But diehard writers and photographers both would argue that new tools or technologies simply replace obsolete ones rather than replicate their full spectrum of tactile experiences. I inherited a Royal HH from my grandparents. The click of the keys and ding as the carriage has finished another line adds a musical rhythm to my writing that a computer cannot mimic. I took two black-and-white photography courses in undergrad, and no image on a high-resolution LCD screen, however perfect, will ever copy the magic of soaking an exposed sheet of paper in chemicals and watching a ghostly image deepen in color and contrast until – there – a complete representation. If I am not a Luddite, I am a romantic. Nostalgia is part of the richness of using a typewriter or developing film and images. Discernible differences exist, and always will, but the number of people who appreciate and savor those differences will diminish along with the obsolete technologies. I live by the following maxim: Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. I am in the minority and won’t normalize my personality or experience. I use my computer a hundred times for every time I use my typewriter. The shutter on my old Canon film SLR is sticky now. But I believe that computers won’t produce better writers any more than digital cameras will produce better photographers. I hope we don’t all start moving so fast that we forget craftsmanship. Printed books were once works of art. Thanks for getting in touch, Mister Reiner. I hope you’ll share your thoughts on other posts.

  3. Posted August 18, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    A fantastic post, Mr. Church. Amen and amen. I am leaving for vacation tomorrow evening and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to read and read and read while sprawled out on the sand, and have begun the process of attempting to figure out how to obtain a library card here in Hoboken, because downloading an eBook to my iPhone would just never, ever cut it. Any good vacation read recommendations?

  4. Austin L. Church
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Water for Elephants. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Ender’s Game. Kay Ryan or Billy Collins poetry. Maybe Andrew Hudgins.