As I’ve said before, premature postmortems on print literature overlook books’ cultural significance. The Kindle and other electronic readers ballyhoo themselves on the same grounds that critics once used to claim that movies, radio, or TV would kill print: the ease, speed, and economy of more advanced technologies should make them more desirable than books. Amazon recently emphasized this in an admittedly well-done and funny ad:
I cannot deny the Kindle’s ease. As the first person in my English department to own a Kindle, several people who make their living parsing books approached me early to ask what I thought of the device. My favorite anecdote involves me entering my local brewpub, ordering a beer, and clicking “Buy Now” on a book I’d wanted for some time. My book arrived before my beer did. That’s clearly both easy and convenient.
Yet I still purchase print books. Not only to I read hard copy, I hoard it, making regular trips to the hardware store for new shelf space to stockpile my books. If Kindle books are so clearly superior, reason dictates I should donate my paper books to Goodwill and go all digital. Why don’t I?
Henry Jenkins, America’s foremost scholar of fandom and fan culture, writes in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers that fans, often derided as nerds and outcasts, actually build strong communal identity around whatever they adore. Our pluralistic society is no longer unified by religion, language, patriotism, or even national myths like the Pilgrims or cowboys. In lieu of this, fans congregate around some cultural artifact, like books or movies, to forge a shared heritage.
This very brief paraphrase doesn’t do Jenkins justice. But I offer it because sharing is no mere luxury. Where it is absent, people seek it wherever they can find it, often looking in wildly inappropriate places. Many people who return from cults, hate groups, and other destructive social syndicates admit they joined not because they agreed with the groups’ defining principles, but because they felt loved and accepted.
Despite Ayn Rand hyperbole about individualistic supermen and parasitic crowds, humans are psychologically geared toward group membership. We make friends early and often, not because we need them to do our work or create mutual utility networks, but because we get simple pleasure being around people we care about. But in our mobile, professionally segmented society, few people make friends based on physical proximity or career compatibility.
Love of a common artifact, like a desired book from a celebrity author, links people around both the object, and the experience of enjoying the object. Sharing books builds important bonds. Back in high school, I lent my friend Edward some books by humorist P.J. O’Rourke, and we bonded by reading each other our favorite passages. Edward and I remain in touch today—which I cannot say about “friends” with whom I lacked such bonds.
I appreciate my Kindle because it lets me snag information quickly. If I need to dredge up a fact, or consume a book for the knowledge it contains, I reach for my Kindle. And it makes a convenient door into publishing for new authors in today’s conflicted economy. After Time-Warner dithered on publicizing my friend Jerry’s first novel, he jumped ship and published his short story collection God, Time, Perception & Sexy Androids digitally. It has received several warm reviews from true fans.
But digital reading is an innately private phenomenon. I can’t share my book with friends. (The Nook, with which I have no familiarity, lets readers share books. I’ll withhold judgment for now.) For true book lovers, those who forge an identity with others over reading, this is no small loss.
Today, you can purchase nearly anything (other than perishable food) online, usually cheaper than in a store. Yet shopping remains an important social enterprise. As Jack Trytten says, we seldom purchase what we purchase; we actually purchase some virtue we associate with the purchase. In the case of shopping, especially shopping for cultural experiences, we purchase the bond the item brings.
Digital reading does not yet provide that bond. Until it does, print books will occupy a unique and irreplaceable pinnacle in our culture and our lives.