Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I sometimes think that if humankind has a purpose at all, it must have something to do with the general accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. After all, what else have we accomplished? What can we really pass along? Wealth, of course. That’s nice too, but a literary classic can outlast a family fortune by thousands of years.

And what better way to convey that knowledge and wisdom than books? Books have been around a long time, they’re reasonably easy to carry and store, and they’re very efficient in terms of keeping lots of information in a small space. Certainly recent digital innovations provide some advantages over traditional printed books, but they have their drawbacks as well. Apart from the garish displays, the mutability of digital storage formats, and the fragility of electronics, they completely lack the sensory experience of reading a book. There’s a great satisfaction in handling and absorbing an actual printed book.

More importantly, ebooks threaten the distinctiveness of reading as an activity. Reading an ebook is blended with watching videos and animation, playing games and checking email. Psychological experiments have shown that readers undergo the same physiological states as the characters they read about. Reading about running raises the heart rate, just as more contemplative literature can lower it. Reading works because we are able to translate the symbols on a page into a kind of experience very directly. Surely that effect is diminished when the “book” starts beeping and displaying someone’s tweets.

And after the final devastation, when all the Kindles and iPads are rendered useless by the lack of electricity, I'll still be able to read by the glow of the radioactive trees.

So books are still highly durable and effective vessels for the collected knowledge of humankind. At least that’s how I rationalize the two bookcases I just bought, bringing the total in my home office to nine, and the fact that they’re almost full already.

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