The advent of the e-book has completely changed the business of reading – e-readers are the wood block in a game of Janga that cause the tower to fall. Now that people can download a book without ever touching paper, publishing companies doesn’t know how to price books. How do you charge for something immaterial? Now writers can self publish and people can own entire libraries that you’ll never see. The curious thing, I think, is that there seems to be this moral question looming over the product. And though many are oblivious or indifferent to the battle, there are certainly sides.
There are those avid readers who cherish tangible bound literature in an almost holy sense. To them, books are a sacred artifact that carries the weight of the knowledge inside. To strip a reader of the experience of touching is to turn away the face of God (to be a little dramatic).
While some might call this silly, there is certainly a cause for it. A rationale, if you will. Humans like to touch, they need to touch. Researchers at DePauw University suggest that touch is at the very center of communication. In fact, the study points out that when a caregiver holds a baby, that infant will take on the emotions of the person holding them. We take in what others and our environment put out (“emotion” is derived from the Latin for “to move out”).
Books are a part of our environment, especially when you read. Perhaps readers are using the finger- or hand-to-page contact to extract some emotive sensation that flies beneath the radar. The DePauw study also notes that touch forms attachments. Can you form an attachment to a book? Well, look at children with blankets and stuffed animals. I’d say the evidence points toward yes. Therefore, readers might become more attached to the story, preserved by the paper itself, when reading. The only flaw in that idea is that e-readers are also vestals.
Removing the sensation
The tactile experience of reading a paper novel is very different than studying an e-book. Bound literature has pages, each of which carries a certain weight. The action of turning a page can be kinesthetic, olfactory and auditory. Books themselves vary in weight, texture and smell. All in all, reading a book stimulates the senses in a unique way.
Reading an e-book does as well. An e-book has the sound of clicking buttons, the smell of plastic and the feel of a smooth modern surface. It’s an experience, albeit a different one. So are we to assign value to each? What makes one more special, more profound than the other?
Perhaps it’s the same material vs. immaterial question. The words and pages of an e-book don’t exist. They are visual representations of digital content. Coding is responsible for the words on the page. Readers know this, and even if the mechanics of it elude them, they feel it.
Again, I ask whether the fact that e-books are immaterial (other than the casing) is reason to assign them less valuable (and I direct this question to those who shun the era of e-literature)? It’s hard to come up with a response, no? I think that’s because romanticism isn’t about logic and breaking down value and morality into simple arguments. I think romanticism is a feeling, a sensation that is subjective.
The one who recalls spending hours in a used book store searching for a first edition has fond scent and tactile memories. Children of the future may recall the sleek face and press of a button on their e-book as something of a comfort. Nostalgia, then, may be to blame for the hesitation with which many approach e-readers.
Difficult to call