Save the Books

Becca Polk

Before I begin, I must first make a confession. When I was younger, I hated books. I thought they were stupid and I often wondered why we even took the time to read when we had the TV to watch and the Internet to surf. Looking back now however, I’m baffled by how easily I excused the art of reading. I honestly can’t imagine my life without books, and with this in mind, I so desperately fear for the future of print publishing and the multi-sensory experience of reading.

Now, another confession: I don’t think the hunger for a good read will ever fully cease to exist. But sadly, it looks as though that hunger will be satisfied through a computer screen, and not with a physical book. I’m not saying that in twenty years we are all going to live in a world without any reading material, but it’s quite possible that we are close to an age of all-digital, all the time. With that, be prepared to say goodbye to the new book smell—or even the old book smell. Say goodbye to trading your most prized, dog-eared, bent-spine book with someone dear. Instead, with the rapid digital shift, it’s looking like we will preserve books instead of swapping them, and we will instead, rely upon computer and tablet-based reading.

In articles written by David Streitfeld, Brewster Kahle, and Angus Phillips, this concept of a digital takeover is thoroughly examined, and along the way a terrifying conclusion is drawn; we are quickly entering an age where digital is “in” and the physical product is a notion of the past. But in my opinion, I believe we have to reconsider what we are losing while trying to gain greater accessibility as consumers.

In order to fully grasp this change, we should first recognize how all forms of media are affected by the digital takeover, and not just print literature. In Angus Phillips’ “Does the Book Have a Future?” Phillips explains how “the switch from film to digital photography has impacted . . . the way in which people share and store their holiday snaps and family memories” before also examining how the music industry has experienced a similarly enormous shift with the transfer from “analog to digital.”[i] Here, we see that all forms of multimedia are forced to adapt, and even though the end results may allow consumers to enjoy quicker accessibility, these advancements, that parallel the literary shift, also take things away. We don’t anxiously unwrap envelopes of newly developed photos anymore, or swoon over someone holding a boom box outside of our window. Boombox Serenade. Instead we might, maybe, print a photograph on our own stock paper or share a headphone with someone, before returning to a world where we definitely don’t teach our children how to get the VCR to work, or how you have to blow on the Nintendo 64 to get things moving. In many ways, we are robbing ourselves of essential sensory experiences—with photos, music, and books—just to save money and time.

Phillips continues to explore this sacrifice as he shifts his focus from audio and photography to books, stating “more than twenty years ago, it was cool and fashionable for college students to carry around philosophy books even if they didn’t actually read them. Now college students pay more attention to their mobile phones.”[ii] As a current student, I’m not going to disagree that this is true. Is it disappointing? Yes, but it is most definitely true, as reading is hardly seen as “cool” in the grand scheme of today’s “cool” trends. Even I must admit that when I go to the library at home, I walk out with a stack of ten books, every week and a half or so, and, even though I’m excited about the material, I feel incredibly nerdy with such a bulky stack. So, in a balancing act, I end up rushing to my car, where I recover by pulling out my phone and listening to my music (which comes from my phone and not a CD or tape), to try to restore my “cool points.”

I am, of course, not ashamed of how much I love to read now, but I also recognize how odd it is to see a twenty-year-old girl with a stack of books without a classroom in sight. And how disappointing is it, that in a world so full of wonderful novels and books, a person can feel so out of place carrying just a few. But now that I am unashamed, I have embraced the entire sensory experience of holding a book in my hands. Not just the flipping of the pages, but I dog-ear anything I like. Anything I love, or want to remember. I love the smell of opening my favorite book, and being able to flip to favorite section, see what I wrote in the margins. Maybe I’ll single handedly change the popularity of book hoarding and modeling, but, well, probably not.

In the meantime, if anyone can save the art of print literature, Brewster Kahle is a man who might have a chance. He understands the importance of archiving, and since he started the Internet Archive, we as a society are not losing everything we hold dear to the digital era. This preservation of books, I believe, is so important, especially in a time where companies are strategically getting rid of books in such a terrible way, as Kahle examines: “two of the corporations involved in major book scanning have sawed off the bindings of modern books to speed the digitizing process.”[iii] Horrible, right? Absolutely terrifying, but, in a moment of lightheartedness, Kahle is every book lover’s savior, as he celebrates and encourages saving these “important objects in safe ways to be used for redundancy, authority, and in case of catastrophe.”[iv] In a world full of about 100 million books, there is a lot to lose and too much important information to disappear. Because is it really possible to add every single book to the internet, especially if it wasn’t successful in one person’s eyes? Nevertheless Kahle is persistent, and states that “the goal is to preserve one copy of every published work” (Kahle 2). I, for one, want to give this man a hug.

David Streitfeld explores similar ideas about the digital revolution in his article “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.” In his piece, he mentions something that Kahle said to him, which I find to be particularly fascinating. Quite eloquently, he states, “you can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture.”[v] With this, we must ask ourselves: How do we prepare for what this flood will bring? How do we grasp the idea of all digital, all the time? In my opinion—which I think aligns with Kahle’s efforts—we need to save the books before we lose them. He even asks, “What if, for example, digitization improves and we need to copy the books again?”[vi] Such an important question because it is oh so realistic. The horrible ease with which something can disappear is what makes this real. Look at how easily these other medium changed. How easily records turned to CDs which turned to iPods and now iPhones, and all with such a rapid shift. However, as Carmelle Anaya leaves readers with something to ease our minds: “The books will live on  . . . even if the people can’t.”[vii]

After reading these articles, I don’t ever want to get rid of my most treasured covers, and, on a more practical level, I don’t like the idea of having to read books off of a computer screen. It’s okay to look to the future, but we must also look at the price of our evolution. What if our grandchildren never get to know the sensory experience of holding a book in their hands? What if they never know? Streitfeld quotes Kahle by saying, “we must keep the past as we’re inventing the future.”[viii] I couldn’t agree more. We must take care of what has come in order to continue to grow, and, in my opinion, it’s time to stop choosing ease over what matters most—sensory connection, one photo, song, and word at a time.

Notes

[i] Phillips, “Does the Book have a Future”, 2.

[ii] Ibid, 3.

[iii] Kahle, “Why Preserve Books”, 1.

[iv] Ibid, 2.

[v] Streitfeld, “Flood Tide of Digital Data”, 1.

[vi] Ibid, 2.

[vii] Ibid, 4.

[viii] Ibid, 2.

 

Bibliography

Kahle, Brewster. “Why Preserve Books? The New Physical Archive of the Internet Archive.” Internet Archive Blogs, 2011.

Phillips, Angus. “Does the Book Have a Future?.” A Companion to the History of the Book. Eliot, Simon and Jonathan Rose (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2007.Blackwell Reference Online. http://www.blackwellreference.com

Streitfeld, David. “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.”  The New York Times, 2012.

 

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10 Comments

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  1. The digital world is both a tragedy and a blessing. As we shift more towards making everything digital, physical items such as books become less of a priority. But the digital world has so much to offer for us, no one can deny their love for it. It’s a love/hate relationship for those of us who still prefer to read from a real book.

    It’s interesting that you didn’t like books when you were younger. I think it really shows the preferences of those of us born in the last 20 to 25 years. It’s sad that children now prefer their tablets over all of those amazing kid’s books out there with beautiful illustrations, etc…

    I love when you say, “I am, of course, not ashamed of how much I love to read now, but I also recognize how odd it is to see a twenty-year-old girl with a stack of books without a classroom in sight. And how disappointing is it, that in a world so full of wonderful novels and books, a person can feel so out of place carrying just a few.” How crazy is it that you will now find people reading books off of their tablets instead of an actual book? I think there is hope though–I can pick out a handful of the population, including myself who would still rather have an actual book in their hands.

    Another point to touch on is the uprise in digital archives. When you say, “In a world full of about 100 million books, there is a lot to lose and too much important information to disappear. Because is it really possible to add every single book to the internet, especially if it wasn’t successful in one person’s eyes?” I really start to wonder why people think adding them to the internet is necessary. Having dozens of copies physically available seems more authentic than having an all access pass to pieces of work via the internet.

    Great post on a very complicated topic!

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  2. When you read your paper I was excited to hear you had chosen many of my favorite pieces of the articles to speak on. I thought looking at the other forms of media, like music and photography, was important because literature is not the only area this is happening to. I also liked that you included that a lot of what new generations will be missing is the sensation of experiencing these items, like the smell of books and printing photographs. We can receive things so instantly in our society that it’s easy to forget that obtaining those things used to take time, and I think we’ve begun to appreciate things less because of this. I also found the Kahle article disturbing when it’s revealed that some books are being destroyed in order to be scanned and transformed into a digital being, mostly because if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Finally, my favorite part out of the articles was when Phillips comments on how there was a time when someone who walked around with many books was someone to envy or strive to be, but now people just think someone with a lot of books is strange or trying to hard. I’ve been in classes where I’ve been one of the only people who bought the book for class, which doesn’t bother me until other classmates begin bragging about how they don’t purchase the books for most of their classes, as if I’m nerdy just because I followed common procedure. I’m sure the reason students don’t buy the books is due to their often ridiculous price, but their attitude when discussing it makes it seem like books are beneath them, and because I bought some, so am I.

    Your opening was great and extremely inviting for the reader, partly because your experience with books was unique and I wanted to see how that switched around. The personal touches, like the visual of you leaving the library quickly with a stack of books, were great and said a lot about what it’s like to function in this generation when it comes to literature. Your piece was quite thought provoking because you mention so many things that future generations aren’t going to understand, which only makes me wonder what things do we rely on today that are going to be obsolete in a decade.

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  3. You did an excellent job of describing the sensory experiences of reading a physical book. You’re right that it’s just plain impossible to replace the experience of going to the library, coming out with your pile of books, sitting down and cracking one open, and feeling the well-worn pages. I don’t want to lose this, either.

    But I would also suggest that maybe we’re not so much losing one technology as gaining new ways of reading. While I also prefer the experience of ink-and-paper books, digital books (and other similar media) can open up so many new experiences to us. For example, some young adult books have picked up on the trend of multimedia novels. The books themselves stand alone, but they have accompanying websites with videos, blog posts, images, and other supplementary content that would be impossible to print in a book. It’s a cool new way of drawing in new readers; some might not normally consider picking up a book for fun, but they might be more likely to read if they’re enticed by the online content. Also, e-books make it possible to do things like embed hyperlinks to definitions of unfamiliar words, enlarge print to accommodate readers with poor vision, or even enable screen reading for blind readers. I agree that these things don’t necessarily replace the good old-fashioned dog-eared book, but I also think that e-books are valuable as technology all of their own.

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  4. Becca,
    You make so many good (and sad) points in your article. As an avid reader, who also loves the feel and smell of books, the idea of being “close to an age of all-digital, all the time” disheartens me. Your description of losing “essential sensory experiences” just to “save money and time” is sadly true. Too often in our culture, people are willing to cut as many corners as they can just to make life faster or cheaper, forgetting about what they lose when doing so. For me, the idea of reading a book entirely onscreen sounds terrible, but how might that have already changed with the children who grew up with iPads? I hope that we someday can move past the idea of “saving” print culture, and go back to simply appreciating it. Your description of reading—flipping pages, dog-earing, taking notes in the margins—simply cannot be replicated online, no matter how sophisticated technology gets. The sensory experience is dropped in favor of ease. To be fair, if technology can move books digitally into areas that otherwise would be completely without books, then perhaps the sensory experience can be put on the back burner. Any book is better than no book. However, in America, in our current economy, books are as accessible as they are affordable. If people don’t change their thinking to value books again, then perhaps Brewster Kahle’s archival project will someday become our only access to books long lost.

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  5. Jeffrey Langan May 11, 2016 — 6:19 am

    I have mixed feelings about digitization when it comes to books, which I think you did a great job of talking about. I always want there to be libraries but I prefer to read on my kindle. I thought it was interesting that you felt the need to restore your cool points after walking out of the library with a handful of books. More and more my friends are saying that being a ‘bookworm’ is an attractive trait, and I know that seeing a twentysomething girl with a stack of books might be an odd sight, but I hope that people don’t get the wrong idea about that.

    This past Christmas my mom bought a few items for me from my Kindle wish list, which excited me quite a bit, as they are now always with me on a small device that I can carry around. But I definitely identify with the worry that kids are going to grow up without physical books. The fact that people have access to collections of literature through their tablets is such a cool opportunity, but given everything else that a tablet can do, it seems like an unlikely candidate for revitalizing society’s interest in old texts.

    The thought of book bindings being sawed off is a horrifying one, but I love that you point out that “In a world full of about 100 million books, there is a lot to lose and too much information to disappear.” The availability of books in bookstores is more of a business than I had realized before taking this class, so I think that the digitization of books serves as a nice safety net to keep works from being lost, but like you said, the cost of the sensory experience is enormous.

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  6. Katie Ballalatak May 11, 2016 — 4:16 pm

    Becca,
    Your focus on sensory experience with books is beautiful! Books on computers just aren’t the same as books in the physical form. One of the main reasons I don’t like to read books on my phone or my laptop is because I am note-taker. I love underlining favorite passages and I fill the margins with outside connections that I make as well as thoughts about the message. I don’t get to do that on the computer as easily and even when I can, it really isn’t the same.
    I’m curious to see what the future of printed books will be. I often wonder if there is any evidence to show that people learn better with physical books? Much like the idea of taking notes by writing them instead of typing them, it is very possible that reading a physical book instead of a digital one allows for fuller understanding of the text.
    I understand why digitized books are becoming so popular and I appreciate how the internet has contributed to the accessibility of knowledge but I’m in the same boat as you; it’s sad to think that future generations may not have the same sensory experiences with books as we do.
    You did a great job tackling such a tricky topic!

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  7. Morgan Alexander May 11, 2016 — 5:53 pm

    Becca,
    I think your blog post is extremely timely and relevant for the shift we are all experiencing in an increasingly digital world. I really enjoyed how you highlighted the effects that this transition to technology has on various aspects of our lives that then related to books as well. The notion of preserving books instead of swapping them puts this into perspective for the reader. Similarly, when you say “be prepared to say goodbye to the new book smell—or even the old book smell” you are drawing emotional responses from your reader, which is successful because it makes your reader invested and provides the “so what” element.
    I was saddened by the quote you use of Phillips’s explaining how it used to be cool for students to carry their books and now we just focus on our cell phones. I agree with you that preservation of these texts is important, but also difficult because of constantly and rapidly changing technology. You point out that even in such a short time technology has advanced so much. For example, CDs to iPods to iPhones. It is interesting and scary to consider that with technological advancements we could need to scan books again for digital archiving as Kahle points out. Overall, I think you raised important questions and things to consider in relation to digital archiving and saving books. I personally think it is sad to lose books in their physical form, because I think there is more to them than just reading the same text on a screen.

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  8. Alexis Gaither May 11, 2016 — 6:04 pm

    This is a huge topic to take on, so I commend you for being able to synthesize these important points so well! You really got me thinking about what’s going to represent our culture in the future when you said “How do we prepare for what this flood will bring? How do we grasp the idea of all digital, all the time?”
    Will future generations see us as digitally obsessed, or will we continue down this path of converting everything online for convenience? I think of our trip to the University of Minnesota where we were able to peek at the physical objects that come along with the culture of Sherlock Holmes—everything from manuscripts to a Sherlock-themed pig toy—and how you simply can’t replace that experience with an online database.
    Future generations are in for a ride when they attempt to discern what defined the 2000s and 2010s. In 10, 20, 100, or 1,000 years from now, it will be easy to look at news websites, commercial advertisements, and pop culture magazines. But what books will they choose? Will they value their original covers, or will reading it online be considered equal to reading a book if, as you said, our grandchildren won’t experience holding a books in their hands anyway? This post gives some serious food for thought!

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  9. Hey Becca,
    You bring up so many good points in your article. Like you, when I was younger I hated reading. I didn’t understand its appeal and I struggled to keep up with my classmates in reading comprehension. However, once I finally started to read on my own my life changed forever. It opened my eyes up to a world of possibilities and my bookshelf at home began to fill with new books. My bookshelf at home is stilled filled with all my old books, most of them YA fiction. I always tell my parents that they’re free to rearrange my room if they want, but to never touch my books. I’m not really sure why that is, considering most of them are books that I’ll never read again. A few series, like Harry Potter of course, I’ll probably pick up again in the future, but most of them have been sitting dormant on my shelves for years. However, the idea of getting rid of them isn’t something I can even consider. Everytime I see my overstuffed bookshelf back home I’m reminded of my childhood, of my struggle to learn to read. I’m reminded that I didn’t always want to be an English major and I wasn’t always a strong writer. Just seeing those books on the shelf is enough to evoke all of those memories and the journey that I took to get here today. I agree with you wholeheartedly; there should always be a place for real, physical books. They’re much more than just bound text, they’re symbolic of the hours we’ve poured into reading them, of the process it took for an author to write them, an editor to improve them, and a publisher to make them tangible. While e-readers are certainly a more economical approach to reading, you can’t get the same emotions out of scrolling through your Kindle list that you can get from gazing at seemingly endless rows of books at a library.

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  10. Katherine Lawin May 12, 2016 — 12:56 am

    I love the way that you approached the topic of transitioning to a digital world. Your personal transition from disliking to loving literature, I think, has quite a bit of power when considering trading in paper books for computerized versions. Do you think that it is possible that one day you will learn to appreciate the “swipe” between “pages” or the compact digital location of thousands and thousands of books? Perhaps people like us, who would undoubtedly prefer to have a paper book in their hands, will one day embrace this new medium? After all, technological progress and innovation is as addictive as it is unavoidable. I am inclined to agree with Anne’s statement, “but I would also suggest that maybe we’re not so much losing one technology as gaining new ways of reading.” Although paper books may one day become outdated, that does not mean that they will disappear from the collective human memory. Members of past, current, and even future generations continue to engage with and be shaped by the medium of paper text. As members of the millennial (digital) generation, I think that we must also keep an open mind, taking care not to stand in the way of progress that possesses good intent. Perhaps the nostalgia that we associate with the printed word, we will one day also associate with an old kindle or a bookmarked, highlighted digital copy of a text.

    I also appreciated your inclusion of “the books will live on… even if the people can’t” with the associated analysis of digital archives. Although touched upon by Sofia and Jeffrey, I would disagree. Indeed, the prospect of transitioning to a digital world is frightening, yet I would also argue that attempting to preserve text digitally (forever) causes just as much anxiety and fear. It is clear that change is difficult, especially when it threatens deeply emotional, entrenched attachments, that is, the close connection that a reader develops with the pages of a novel. In a way, we become part of the text we read, and in transitioning from paper to digital, is it also true that we lose part of ourselves?

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