CDs or MP3s? E-mail or letters? Books? Or eBooks? All questions which can say a lot about the kind of person you are. When it comes to the subject of which format people prefer their literature to be delivered in, everybody seems to have a strong opinion on the matter. Some people, my parents included, believe that the e-book is a rather pointless invention that will “never replace a real book” (huge emphasis on the word “real”). Others are embracing eBooks and exclaiming that “Print is dead!”. It’s a subject on which people feel very passionately. Books seem to spark a very strong attachment in people. Did anybody care this much about their Walkmans when MP3 players were introduced? I think not.
In the furore that is the ongoing books vs eBooks debate, I am convinced that eBooks will eventually win. By “win”, I mean they’ll become the norm; their sheer digital convenience will prevail over the cumbersome, old fashioned mass of pages that is a physical, tangible book. However, that old fashioned mass of pages has something which many people, myself included, find inextricably fascinating and alluring. A printed book provides something that just can’t be replicated by it’s electronic equivalent.
So just what is it that is so special about a book?
First and foremost it has to be that a real book is something tangible. We can hold it, feel the texture of the materials, and the weight of it in our hands. It engages the senses in a way that eBooks never will. We’ve all heard of that “new book smell”, and if you’ve ever walked into an antiquarian bookshop, you’ll no doubt also be familiar with that “old book smell” too.
For many people, the owning of a book is as pleasurable as the reading of it. People take huge pride in their book collections, and the way in which the books are displayed on their bookshelves. In height order? By genre? Colour? Chronology? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever lost an afternoon fastidiously rearranging the books in my home, only to find a couple of overlooked paperbacks, which then throw the whole perfectly organised shelving system into total disarray.
Apple’s iBooks application mimics the appearance of a real bookshelf by giving you a digital one (a step in the right direction, and certainly more exciting than the black and white list of titles you get on a Kindle). On the iPad or iPhone you can organise and reorganise this digital ‘beech effect’ bookshelf to your heart’s content, but for some reason, rearranging postage stamp sized jpgs of book covers isn’t quite as satisfying as shuffling around the real things.
With a printed book you can leave it lying around on the coffee table and say, “Oh yes I was just reading about so-and-so”. They’re fantastic conversation starters, and people can tell if a book is a particular favorite, if it looks well thumbed. But then perhaps this is why people prefer the faceless anonymity of the eBook. Perhaps there is comfort in not giving too much of yourself away. People judge books by their covers, and judge you by your books.
Despite books being such a significant part of our culture and our society, their obsolescence will, inevitably, gradually creep up on them. Just as when any new technology is introduced, there is an overlapping period, where both formats exist, until eventually the old one is no longer produced, and becomes resigned to the realm of antiquity. Think of tape cassettes being replaced by CDs; there was a short period of time when artists released their music on both formats, but CDs soon became the only available option, and tapes became a novelty of the past. Equally, some artists are now releasing their music by MP3 download only, leaving CD’s to take their place in the technology graveyard, where they’ll be reunited with old friends such as the floppy disk, and the VCR.
In theory, printed books should soon be on their way to obsolescence themselves. However, people will always be too attached to books to let them go completely. Printed books are the vinyl records of the literary world; they’re big, they’re beautiful, and unlike their digital equivalents, they are physical, tangible objects, and we’ll always have a certain fondness for them. Like vinyl records, printed books will still be around long after eBooks have been replaced by the next format, and the one after that.
We’re already seeing some innovative new book designs, such as Faber Finds, with unique generative front covers, and My Penguin, where users can create their own front cover designs. For my graduation project at university, I did my own investigation into the topic of books vs. eBooks, and after copious amounts of research (read: hanging around Waterstones, ready to ambush members of the unsuspecting public), I created my own publishing company, called Inprint, which eschews the ebook and embraces print. Each book has an illustrated front cover which is made entirely from paper – no ink is printed on the cover. The paper is precisely cut, and different colours are layered on top of one another to build up the illustration. The result is a book cover which is unique, and incredibly touchable. My aim was to maximise everything that people love about books, and the whole experience you get with a real book over an eBook. I wanted to make the kind of books that people would fall in love with. Is it possible to fall in love with an eBook? I’m not ruling it out, but I’m yet to see the proof.