I can see, from where I’m sitting here, now, that it is still possible to buy a book in paper. Paper books line the walls of this room, pile on the floor, under the bed, cram themselves in odd and awkward places. Many are new, many are old, quite a few are used and signed and occasionally singed. There are first editions amongst them, and hundred-year-old copies, copies with notes in the margins and odd, second-hand bookmarks: an ace of spades, an old postcard, a yellowed newspaper advertisement.
There will be, I’ve heard it said, no substitute for books. Oh, you cannot have a textbook made of bytes and bits, you cannot download the feel of paper. We’ll still have hard copies, I’ve heard it said, and paperbacks, and special printings. We’ll still have signings and dedications, the weight of them. The electronic book is just a fad, a cheap toy. It’ll be the medium of dime novels, cheap novels, the medium of green writers, the Stephanie Meyers of the world. Real writers will stay with the paper book, they say. Real writers, they care, they won’t switch to the electronic medium so quickly, not completely. They’ll keep a paper copy on the shelves.
Or so I’ve heard it said. I’ve heard a lot of things said. I am not fooled. The book has been cheapening since the invention of the printing press, where it was made available to the masses, and tired scribes put up their brushes with a sigh of relief. Even with that momentous invention, something was lost, and in our paper books today even the most ornate and cared-for editions have for the most part forgotten the care, the nearly-illegible brushstroked script, the bright illuminations on the pages of old texts. Even today our paper holds less weight, and the bindings fall apart in only a few years.
Oh, but books are cumbersome things! Large, heavy, worth infinitely less than their weight in gold. Why, for twenty dollars, one can get a hardback copy of a book worth seven, maybe eight, dollars in a paperback edition, available should a person wait another year or so to purchase it, and both with the exact same text! The pages are easily torn and even the lightest splash of any fluid whatsoever does irreparable damage, no matter how quickly one wipes it away. The well-loved book is, after only a few years, held together by tape and ABC gum in a half-hearted attempt at rebinding. So-called “collector’s editions”, collections of authors’ works with half-decent bindings and perhaps a built-in bookmark (to discourage the terrible habit of dog-earing the pages, apparently acceptable in paperback copies) are uncommon, and therefore cost good deals of cash in the golden age of their first printings, whereupon they sink into oblivion.
Why would a person even think to buy a paper book? Oh, certainly, when print was new—suddenly a painstaking, expensive, and time-consuming process was simple and available to the general public. The illuminated texts became a thing of religion and expense, and grew ever more obscure. Printed text was simple, and more importantly, it was cheap. Why would a person spend the time–often their entire life–learning how to make the paper, grind the inks, bind the leaves together, measure the widths and lengths of passages, and carefully, with an artist’s hand, copy out every single word of a manuscript, if not for a holy purpose? Today, illuminated manuscripts are saved for Torahs and the like, and when men devote their minds to the task it is for a holy purpose only. The Gutenberg Bible became the Shakespearean Folios became the cloth-bound books of study became the dime-novel. We have left behind the illuminated text. We are moving forward, always forward, always looking for accessibility; we are pushing literature, reading, stories into the hearts of the masses. The easier it is to obtain, to own, the more people our stories and knowledge will reach. This is, of course, the theory. And it is a good goal, a good theory. Or so I’ve heard it said.
And thus here we are, with the advent of a second printing press, publishing poorly-written Gutenbergs by the thousands. Anyone’s knowledge, anywhere the internet can reach, widely available, cheap, even free! Hundreds of books all packed into the shape of a small, slightly-dense paperback. The printing press allowed the common man a library; the electronic book allows the common man a library tucked into a large coat pocket. Farewell, then, to towering stacks; farewell to the cumbersome searching of shelves, the pince-nez stares of old women from behind a check-out desk. Farewell to lost pages and missing volumes, to incomplete collections, to the vacancies on a shelf where an old friend failed to return a lent copy. Farewell to bubblegum-bound pages, to the paper cuts obtained when running a thumb along the pages of a fresh text. Farewell to indecision upon travel, when only a few well-chosen words will fit in a case; farewell to torn corners accompanying too many down-turnings. Farewell to water-withered pages, to misprints, to notes in the margins that cramp with original words. Farewell to worm damage and yellowing of paper. Farewell to broken backs.
We will face this technology as we did the last, with open arms and inquiring minds, blank, ready to absorb these new thoughts that barrel towards us. They will knock at our eyes with ever-shorter phrases, ever-changing grammar, wild, untamed, free. Our collective opinions, thoughts, even consciousness, already shrinking with the world, will draw ever closer. We will embrace it. We will adore it. We will not look back.
Perhaps, as with illuminations, we will even forget what we have lost.
Farewell to Leaves was written in 2011, shortly after I got an e-reader. As with all my work, this piece is available for free right here: Farwell to Leaves. Please do not distribute it without credit given to me or for money.