I was unpleasantly reminded of the sometimes virulent passions that can be unleashed by the e-book debate on Mayan apocalypse day, as I was sitting in a cafe near Budapest’s Chain Bridge, reading on my Nexus 7.

A middle-aged English couple were sitting at the next table, and as they left, the man launched into an angry anti-e-reader rant to his partner: how the book had been around for thousands of years and was unimprovable; how if he was given such a device he would throw it away … and so on. As usual, I was too slow on the uptake to fully realize what was going on until he was out the door, so you all get the benefit of my delayed reaction.

It spoiled my day. What is happening when a guy can’t even read in peace in a public place? Can you imagine such a reaction to someone reading a print book in a cafe? Suddenly the act of reading is getting as fraught as under Stalinism or the Nazis.

Aside from confirming the ugliest stereotypes about the angry English, though, it did make me think. People have to be so indignant for a reason. I can only assume it’s for fear of attack on a tradition: something of eternal value being sacrificed for faddism. Yet in my view, those who feel e-books undermine the written word have it the wrong way round. It is the print bigots who are the useful idiots of the copyright authoritarians and the obscurantists. They are the ones conspiring to limit and deny free access to high thought and great art, and to undermine and diminish efforts to promulgate these.

e-readingWords have been around a lot longer than paper. So has written literature. From Sumerian clay tablets to Zhou dynasty bamboo strips, there are thousands of years of antecedents to the book. The words outlasted every medium used to preserve them. They will almost certainly outlast e-books, too. The message is the locus of value, not the medium; the tidings, not the bearer. And too often, those who confuse the two are obstructing the message.

I may be overreacting to one instance. But it doesn’t feel that way. I suspect those attitudes are far more widespread and more embittered than we realize. England has a long history of denying its people learning for the sake of misguided priorities. It’s a shame to see that carried over into a new generation and a new medium.

And incidentally, the guy was a teacher.