When I was a teenager and had just moved to Brooklyn, a neighbor of mine and I used to play a game that reveals just what a book nerd I’ve always been. One of us would sit down and close our eyes, and the other would produce two books from their library. The one holding the books would present first one book and then the other for the person with their eyes closed to smell. The game was to guess, by smell, which book was older. It was a difficult feat because the smell of a book is caused by many variables. How the book is cared for, what woods the pages are made of, what the ink has in it, what kind of glue holds the spine together. Some books smell dusty, while some smell like vanilla or almonds or camphor, or a combination of all of them. Opening an old book and smelling it is like swirling wine in the bowl of a glass and putting your nose down to it.
Fast forward ten years and picture this game played on a Kindle. Oh, wait, you can’t play that game on a Kindle. Because E-books don’t have any smell.
There’s lots of arguments for and against E-books. Perhaps it is me showing my age and being sentimental, but I have never had a Kindle or any other e-reader, nor do I plan to. And most of the arguments for e-books don’t seem so great to me.
For example, some people say that E-books are more environmentally friendly. I’m all for preserving the environment, but, honestly, what kind of jerk thinks books are a waste of paper? I’d rather everybody on the planet use single-ply toilet paper their entire lives than never see another book printed on paper.
Another argument is that paper books can be really heavy, while you can carry tons of E-books around on a very light device. But, come on, we’re talking about books here. If you’re a scientist or a research assistant, or a PhD student, maybe you need 15 books at once. But the rest of us do not. Books are not like music, where you can listen to multiple albums over the course of your day, or mix and match tracks from several of them on your commute. You can’t read page 15 of 50 Shades of Grey and then page 201 in The Catcher in the Rye followed by Chapter 3 of A Game of Thrones and have some kind of awesome mixtape. Most people just don’t need to carry around 10 books at once.
Another argument that I hear a lot is that the notes you make on paper books stay forever, while the ones you make on e-books can go away at the press of a button. Do people really hate their former selves that much? Is it that intolerable to read the thoughts you had on Arthur Rimbaud when you were 18? I think it’s kind of cool. When I open a book I haven’t read in forever and see my notes, I get so excited about the layers of myself they add to the actual text. And reading other people’s notes is often just as wonderful. From the miserable jerk who owned the copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther that I got at the Salvation Army and wrote things like, “Get a job” and “Just kill yourself already” in the margins to the time I lent a former mentor of mine a second-hand copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours and he gave it back commenting on what a dark place I must have been in when I read it because of my notes (we both laughed when I told him they were actually someone else’s notes), margin commentary has been so rich and rewarding to discover. But with e-books, you’d never have that.
I will give e-books a few things. You can search for anything in them, which is a plus when you’re writing a paper, or looking for some very specific piece of information. Some of them are cheaper (or free depending on if it’s public domain). Kindles are actually very useful in reducing the waste caused by periodicals. Maybe this whole rant is me holding onto a concept that’s had it’s day out of sentimentality for things like the smell of old books. Or maybe things like the smell of old books are what gives the world substance and heft and feel. And maybe, like there are young people today who have never heard anything but digital music, who don’t know what it’s like to hear a needle drop on a vinyl album, there are things that are really important and really intangible being lost in favor of easy to carry and immediately downloadable.
Are e-books revolutionizing writing and publishing? Yes, in many ways. But even as a writer, that doesn’t seem as important to me as vanilla and almond and camphor and dust all mixed together when I open the covers of an old book.