I like to think I’m pretty modern about this whole books-as-near-religious-object thing. I may be an English student, but I’m all for ebooks and the digitisation of resources. I’m almost at the stage where I’d buy an e-ink screened device (I still can’t quite get used to that glitchy-looking refresh rate), and for certain resources I can even see why libraries might want to develop all-digital collections (text-books, mass-market paperbacks, technical data, legal documents, etc.), though never at the expense of preserving existing physical materials. The artefacts, after all, can speak as loudly as the words they contain, and not to hear them once in a while is to miss out on a certain richness of history.

In all though I’d like to think that I’m on board with the whole project, and so I’ve found myself joining in with the scathing glances, the tuts and shakes of the head aimed in the Luddites’ direction, at those people so stuck in the past that they cling to their objects, still enjoying the smell and the weight of the pages, and trying to inflict their mythologies of books as the superior reading device on a new generation who would otherwise quite happily never purchase an item of physical media in their lives. They’re not wrong in saying books are a fantastic resource, but surely they’re going a bit over the top? After all books are just things.

I’m still surrounded by tons of paper books I love, of course, and no, bar .pdfs and newspapers I haven’t made a complete switch to reading electronically yet, but I will, when the technology’s right. It doesn’t mean I’m not there, I mean, like, right there with it all.

I don’t think I’m alone in having this tortured conversation with myself, in fact maybe its the condition of most people born in maybe the late 70s, early 80s who take an interest in these things. We know we should be fine with the death of the p-book (bring on the e-!) but something’s not quite…right. Right?

Jennifer Howard provided me with a wonderful example of the sort of thing which brings all of this suppressed conversation flooding back in a blog post from last week. In it she discusses the actions of one Alexander Halavais, a communications professor who digitises his own books (yes! One of us!), and has processed about a thousand of them so far by slicing off their spines (oh…) and passing them through a scanner (ah…really?). Yup.

We’re assured, by the way, that he "spares the special ones," but anything else is up for grabs.

And suddenly, when Halavais says that

[He] feels a little bad about what he’s doing. “I’m over a thousand books in, and even now I get that—especially with hardcovers, for some reason—that gut feeling of ‘Will I be judged by the book gods for doing this?’” he told me. “Destroying books is very difficult."

When he says that I still wince. And that’s why I loved to read Howard’s account of his efforts: because it reminded me that when it comes to physical books I’m still faking any acceptance I might have of their demise, because it gave me a glimpse of what a Robert Darnton or a Sven Birkerts must feel all the time.

Oh sure, in theory I’ll go paperless, but that’s because I haven’t done it yet, I haven’t had the chance, I haven’t had to line up the ‘but…’s.

But what about annotations?

But what about the pleasures of browsing second hand?

But what about lending things out to more stone-age friends and relatives?


Even when I’m reading everything from a flexible colour e-ink screen with instant access to every bit of written material we’ve managed to rend into a stream of bytes I probably won’t think that that’s ok. Like the hypocrisy, I would guess, of most people and steak, I admire the theory, but I’m not sure that I could hold the knife. Is it really better to know that in the case of books my squeamishness is irrational?

Harder, it seems, than giving up paper might be giving up caring about paper.

Via Matther Hayler’s 4oh4-wordsnotfound blog.


  1. There are nondestructive ways to scan books. I’ve even covered a few of them here. Do-it-yourself camera-scanning projects where you take pictures of facing pages with two cameras, then turn the page and do it again. Not as fast as sheet-feeding, but pretty quick for nondestructive scan tech.

  2. Demonstrating how powerful the emotional connection with paper and paper books is that our society has created through the centuries. Irrational and silly, but still powerful.
    I believe this connection will fade with the generations. This is the last generation that will retain this adulation of books as objects, as a kind of fetish. Once eReaders are ubiquitous, in about 5 years time, the clock will really be ticking. Saying that however I see paper books continuing until the last generation have passed.

  3. I would be remiss if I did not mention Vernor Vinge’s excellent novel Rainbows End. It’s a near-future story about:

    * What the world could be like with selectable augmented reality (including the presentation of your library)

    * How the world may deal with those that reject this technology

    * How schools could change once recall becomes a vestigial skill

    * (And, in a very central plot point) The rapid digitization of entire book stacks through complete destruction and recreation

    This last part contains an interesting analysis of what it means when an entire world of people effectively “forget” events that weren’t transitioned into the new global database.

    I highly recommend it, even to those that aren’t fans of science fiction.

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