1st Place Stuckey Contest Winner
Thomas Jefferson School
St. Louis, MO
"No!" This was the answer I screamed towards my older sister when she asked if I wanted an e-reader for my birthday. Granted, it was a little extreme, but I was vehement in my views. I had always loathed virtual books, no matter the claimed myriad benefits. I didn't care for the glaring screens, the artificial pages, and the overall imitation. But never before could I come up with a definitive explanation for my irrational partiality towards paper books. Months later, I wonder whether or not my illogical preference can be explained.
At least part of it may be. Like many people, I have always enjoyed reading books. I regard them as special friends: you get to know a book very well, it becomes a comforter, and no matter how many times you brusquely fold its page corners or break its spine in half, it will always be there for you, sitting loyally on the shelf, just waiting to comfort you once more.
So when I first learned about virtual books, I felt as if they were false friends. Sure they gave you essentially the same thing inside paper books, but at the same time, they didn't. Gone were the pages that I had so lovingly marked. And underlining? Forget about it. Of course e-readers come chock full of highlighting and text marking features, but when it's that moment when a book has reached out and grabbed you from its pages and there's nothing else to do but wildly scrawl stars and notes in the wide margins, an electronic keyboard just doesn't cut it. Nothing can replace the feel of pen against paper.
And it's awful when someone makes an attempt to. Virtual books are worse than imitation cheeses. So much effort was put into their making so they could appear like real books. When you turn the page of an e-book, it is almost like a paper book. Almost. You can even highlight certain sections of text. E-readers have even more features than a real book: changing the font type and size, automatic dictionaries, etc.. But it was these features specifically that made me uncomfortable with virtual books. They aren't paper books, yet try so much to be like their prototypes. Why not just be what they are? Digitaldocuments. I'm afraid this may be one case where if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's still just an e-reader.
There's more than just the odd features that bother me. Whenever I finish a tome (think Dumas or Ayn Rand) I love the feeling of closing the back cover, hefting the heavy book in my hands, and then flipping it over with a thud onto the table. Then I would marvel at the sheer size and amount of text I had just finished. As odd as it is to express that in writing, this behavior is normal for many people. Who wouldn't feel accomplished after reading 1000 plus pages?
So imagine you're just about to finish War and Peace on your e-reader (for free due to The Guttenberg Project, one thing I do love about virtual books), and after months of reading you're more than just excited to turn over the last page and slam the back cover shut for good - you're hysterical as your finger flips over the last pixelated page. What's this? There is no such gratification. Only a blank page. No back cover to flip over. You try to slam it down onto the table next to you, but cannot for fear of breaking the expensive glass screen. It's not easy being virtual.
Nor is it ever easy to grow up. Whether it's middle school or preschool, there will always be problems for adolescents. Maybe it's the simple fear of going to the dentist for the first time, or finding a way to cope after a divorce. There will always be books that help solve problems for children. Books teach children lessons that parents can't; kids can let their guard down when reading, since they know books won't reprimand or judge them. The lessons found in books construct a child in a way that no parent, teacher, or counselor can. Books are building blocks, and I think this is partly why each person is different.
To illustrate this idea, suppose you were to happen upon my bookshelf without knowing me personally. You would immediately gain insight into a few things about me. You would see that I love animals and zoos. You would recommend that I start reading something other than nineteenth-century British authors. And if you looked really closely, you might even see the time when I started questioning my faith and read about all different kinds of religions.
Each book is a part of me. Of course I was a different after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma or one of Elie Wiesel's tragic stories. Without my bookshelf, I often think I would be an empty shell, destitute of ideas, opinions, and thoughts. These books are my blocks, and I enjoy displaying my bookshelf. I like to think my collection is interesting - a piece of art almost, all different sizes, colors, and genres of books. When people see my bookshelf, they are seeing who I am. I can't show my building blocks with an e-book the way I can with my bookshelf. In fact, many people, even those who aren't fanatical readers, use 'coffee-table books' to decorate their houses. While these aren't exactly books you snuggle up to at night, people place them around their houses just as you would display photographs or paintings to show general interests, such as architecture, gardening, or traveling. To my knowledge, you can't replace these books with a digital document.
Maybe you still believe Kindles and Nooks are the way to go. You may laugh at my bookshelf, at how old it is, how heavy my books are (believe me they are, but even after moving nine times, I still love them.) You may suggest to decorators that they find a better medium. Actually, I find these all to be logical points. But there is one item upon which I will not budge, and this is board books.
For those who don't know - or have forgotten - a board book is a small book for children with each 'page' constructed out of heavyweight cardboard, giving the entire book a sturdy feel and rendering it nearly indestructible. Board books are built this way so that no matter how many times an infant chews, spits, throws, or tries to rip the book, it will stay intact. Almost every child starts learning to read through board books. Indeed, most doctors tell parents that normal infant development starts with children reaching for board books and playing with them.
I have no doubt that using board books as a baby instills an inclination to read in all people. Because of board books, I think people will always instinctively want a book to be something they hold in their hands and can feel the turn of the page. Until we replace board books with virtual books, that yearning will never go away, and there will still be people out there like me who will always prefer real books. Not everyone reads the Wall Street Journal upon entrance to this world, but everyone starts with books as a baby. No matter how advanced our technology may become, we will never be able to replace the tactile yearning kindled (no pun intended) in nearly all people.
It's true, books are expensive. Books are heavy. Books are a waste of natural resources, while virtual books are much more environmentally friendly. If you read frequently, they are much cheaper. You can fit more e-books into a Kindle than you can into a large suitcase. But I don't think I'll ever be a fan of e-books, no matter how many features they have, because their very reason for existence serves to eradicate all the physical burdens which books entail. But these burdens are the quirks that stole my heart since I was little. I love the smell of old books. I love marking and rereading my favorite passages with all sorts of wild notes. I love being able to look at my bookshelf and remind myself of who I am. We live in a digital age, but we are physical beings who crave the sense of touch, the one thing technology cannot replace. And until e-readers fulfill that task, I can't convert.