Them’s Fightin’ Words

Posted on March 10, 2010


It seems like everyone has to line up on one side or the other of the great digital vs. print divide. For example, there’s that great anecdote about Sherman Alexie wanting to slap a woman on a plane reading on a Kindle. A Quale author, John Olson, has a good essay on the topic of the divide. (You might also want to check out John’s novel about a fantasy of Rimbaud coming to the U.S. Southwest and meeting up with Billy the Kid.) This issue is being touted as an intellectual one when its grounding is essentially emotional – we all have our associations with these peculiar objects we call books.

I really dislike the attitude that you have to pick one side or the other. You’re-one-of-them,-not-one-of-us type attitude. Well, I guess I’m bi in this case. As stated before in this blog, I love print and I love digital. I just love books – whatever form they come in. And each form – whether hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, audiobook or ebook (that might cover it) – has its benefits and drawbacks.

For one thing, I hate footnotes in print books. I had a running argument with a dear friend who wrote a very entertaining history of the footnote. But I love links in ebooks. They both interrupt linear reading. One gets under my skin; the other doesn’t. Go figure. (It’s just a matter of taste – an emotional reaction.)

Provided I live long enough, I’m looking forward to a “retirement” where I can pull out my little tabletop letterset press and cache of 19th century metal type and put together some hand-made books (as well as possibly work on some one-of-a-kind artist’s book type projects). At the same time, I’m also looking forward to working in the digital environment, utilizing what’s good there to create different types of an artist’s book.

I just get worried about everyone having to line up in mutually opposing camps. When I’m teaching my book overview class, I make my students wrestle with this statement from Warren Chappell:

“But once it was made clear how cheap a book could be, there was some pressure in some quarters to reduce books to this form, not only in the case of popular reprints but also in the case of first editions. When the only form in which a book exists is a form that cannot last, then the essence of the form, the thing that makes a book a book, has been betrayed.”

For one thing, Chappell was talking about mass market paperbacks. His view was if a book is not a hardbound, highly crafted artifact, it is not a book. (Talk about an elitist attitude…) Durability is a requirement. Just in case you didn’t know: that cheap beach book you bought that will eventually fall apart makes it not a book… So if you thought you were reading a book, I guess you were mistaken — you were reading something, maybe a kumquat…

But I’ll stop here (for now). Don’t we all want people to read? Who are we to decide for others that the reading experience they choose is not genuine, and not vital to their being?

Posted in: ebooks, print books