Technology

Why I love books

British politics books on my shelf at home

Pile up my work and personal gadgets on a table at home and what do you find? One desktop computer. Two portable computers. One iPad. Two Blackberries. An iPod. A digital camera. A mobile WiFi hotspot. And quite simply the best USB accessory ever, a funfair from Hong Kong.

Then take your eyes away from the picture of gadget addiction and let them roam up any of the walls. You will see books, books and more books. I like my gadgets, but I love my books. There is no e-book reader in that monument to technology on the table.

What is it that makes me love books and spurn electronic book readers? It is the wonders of the printed format.

My books are ultra-reliable, with the text always instantly accessible the moment I take one off the shelf.

Even when a book suffers a catastrophic failure and the spine gives out, scattering pages on the floor, it is easy and quick to recover. Restoring corrupted data is a snip when it is a collection of pieces of paper, each one containing a sequential ordering system serial number telling you how to restore the data. (That’s page numbers to you and me.)

The books never need charging or recharging. I have books I have owned for decades, using and abusing them many times. Yet they are still always there, fully primed ready to be used the next time. Paper life is measured in centuries, not the measly hours of battery life.

Clear my table of those gadgets and I can start with but one small book in my hand. When I want to branch out and refer to another book, it can take a place on table, open at the right place. To be joined if I wish by another book, and then a dictionary, then an atlas, then one more book and on and on until I have dozens of books scattered in front of me, all easily reachable and with my eyes able to dart instantly back and forth.

Not even a web browser groaning under multiple tabs or a computer with multiple screens can get close to providing the feast of visual information in front of me that the printed word can present.

And then there is the search. Oh of course, electronic books have their electronic word search. But searching simply for matches on precise words is the Ryanair of searching. Brutally effective and very limited.

With my printed books I can search using the full range of my memories. Memories of heavy books, small books, colourful books, plain books, something read near the end of a chapter, that book with the weird line spacing, something seen next to some photos, something where I turned the corner of a page. All the wonderful different variety of clues that half lodge in my memory can help me locate information in the way that a text search box spurns with its fanatical narrowness.

Books do memories well, and memories are not just for searching. They are for savouring. The battered book. The water damaged spine. The coffee marks on the cover. The blood stain on the inside. The folding and refolding of edges on certain pages. The notes scribbled in margins. The smudge of lipstick on the edge. The scattered range of items used as bookmarks, little history mementoes themselves. The occasional inscription in a childhood book from a long-forgotten adult or in a birthday present from a long-cherished friend. A book is far more than the collection of printed letters on its pages.

It is, moreover, a safe place for memories. Books are a permanent format for permanent ownership. No worries about future legal changes or technological discontinuities suddenly depriving me of books or making them unreadable. No fuzziness about whether you own or are just renting a book. Purchased and mine; simple and easy.

So it should be, for a book is far more than a mere transmission mechanism for words. It is a memory, an entertainment and a form.

E-readers with their obsession about weight and size and screen resolution are like those who go to see a play with a stopwatch in one hand and a clicker in the other, counting up how many words per minute they get out of that night’s play.

It is the performance that entertains, entrances and educates, not the mere use of an optimal transmission mechanism.

The look, the touch, the smell, the convenience, the memories – they make books lovable. Proper books, printed books, permanent books.

Footnote two years later: there’s now some science to back up my views.

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