Change is inescapable. As a student of history, I’ve realized that nothing, no matter how wonderful or precious, endures forever. We as people change with our experiences; life, language, and landscapes continue to evolve with use and time, and even the stoutest mountains melt away under the withering of wind and rain. I realize this the more I get older, and it’s something of a solace: the wisdom in knowing that things must change allows me to make peace with the fact that the change is happening.
Even so, the rising popularity of e-readers makes me thump my nonexistent cane on the ground, scowl at the nonexistent kids on my lawn, and yell “You kids get those gadgets off my grass and outta my life!”. The philosopher in me knows that if books wither away under the barrage of e-readers with cloyingly cute names like ‘Kindle’ and ‘Nook’, the circumstances of such a defeat are out of my control, and thus not fit to get bothered about. I was a book-lover before I was a philosopher, though, and I can no more accept the decline of books than I can watch them be burned at the hands of those incapable of appreciating the ideas they contain.
Part me believes, and cries in a protest borne of fear about books’ potential decline, that those who prefer electronic literature have failed to appreciate books as an art form. This is a feeling, a reaction. I know that to some people, a book is just an object with ideas in it and they can get those ideas from another object, this one with a glowing screen, just as easily. But books aren’t just objects to me, they’re….beautiful wonders. I love the feel of books, the smell of ink and paper, the texture of those pages, the stylized fonts whose ink gleams in the light. I enjoy them all the more as they age — as the pages yellow, as they take on the scents of owners and bookcases, as they acquire a history of their own. I keep books all around me — piled around my home, in my car. They’re on my person, if I travel — tucked into my jeans or jacket pockets. I’m a genuine bibliophile.
I like books too much to accept substitutes, which is all e-readers will ever be to me. I’m told they can hold hundreds of books at once, and I’ll admit that’s a great convenience. It’s also something of a liability, though, a case of putting one’s eggs all in one basket. E-readers can be broken, fried, or otherwise rendered inoperative — and repair of electronic gadgets is increasingly difficult, if not impossible in the case of those oh-so-vulnerable LCD screens. Amazon can simply delete the books on your Kindle if it desires — and it has. It’s possible that book publishers will send you another e-reader to ensure you continue buying their stock, but it is not wise to count on the charity of those who seek profit. As for me, I like my libraries to have physical form — I like holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, feeling that physical presence, knowing that it is real. It can’t be deleted or corrupted by a software glitch. It’s there. It can be destroyed, but it will last longer than me and can endure things I cannot. I wouldn’t survive a fall from a skyscraper, for instance, but a book can. Its cover will be battered and perhaps a bit dirty, but it will survive.
It remains to be seen, however, if books will survive humanity’s obsession with immediacy and convenience. Maybe it’s the neo-Luddite in me, but I’ve stopped being convinced by claims to convenience, for all too often authenticity loses out in the bargain. In the United States, downtown streets have been turned into boarded-up ruins for convenience’s sake, as the glories of the free market prefer box stores in the suburbs staffed by unhappy peons to corner groceries. Once upon a time, Broad Street in my hometown (Selma, AL) used to have pedestrians. Every building had a bustling business in it, and above those buildings were more offices and even apartments where people lived. I never knew this until I started talking to people who lived in those days and began reading books — for now, a walk down Broad Street reveals only a scattering of operating shops. The upstairs are boarded up, and many of the buildings are condemned for lack of maintenance. No one lives there anymore: those buildings have lost their souls.
That, I fear, may one day happen to literature — that it will lose its soul and become nothing more than data tucked away inside a glowing gadget composed of a plastic case and rubber buttons. E-readers have a lot going for them, and I’ll admit to using GoogleBooks to find a specific passage containing choice quotations instead of doing a page-by-page search myself. Perhaps the conversion of literature into digital information is unavoidable. Perhaps one day, as in Star Trek, those who hold on to bound books will be seen as idiosyncratic intellectuals stuck in the past, holding on to antiquities — but if that’s the case, I intend on being one of them.
The title is a reference to those old Inspector Gadget cartoons starring a man whose suit can spawn virtually every tool he needs, from helicopters to grappling hooks.