I am often asked: Why do people still buy printed books, when e-books are now so common and convenient? The answer is not as simple as it might seem and has to do with the unique relationships we've developed with books over the centuries and how they still attract and captivate us in ways the digital versions never will.
Alagappa Rammohan has amassed enough books over the course of his life to fill a library. In his estimation, he has 10,000 — everything from religious texts to quantum physics.
In a StoryCorps interview taped this summer in Chicago, Rammohan, 79, spoke with his daughter, Paru Venkat, 50, who tells him that one of her earliest memories involves his love for books. Listen to his interview on StoryCorps:
The sense that is stimulated initially by a tangible book is Sight. We see it on a shelf and we may be drawn to it by virtue of its composite materials, its color, the image on the front, the title that appears on the spine, its shape, size, etc.
If you’re like me, once you pick up a book, you feel compelled to sniff it. I know, it’s weird, but I love the Smell of a book or any printed matter that has recently rolled off the presses. Older books have a different scent, but a new book, it’s like a new car…it has its own unique signature scent.
Touch is a big factor in the allure of printed books. Some are boring for sure, but others may have glossy dust covers, leather or leatherette skins, their weight may vary depending on the grade of paper used and the integrity of their construction. And a new book is like a new pair of jeans. Its tight and rigid at first. It has a virgin quality that beckons you to possess it, to make it your own. And if it speaks to you, in just the right way, you may bond with it, carry it with you on the journey of your life, finding just the right location to display it in each place you call home.
While it is true that an e-book file can be read on any or all devices you have in your digital armamentarium, all those devices require an electrical current, which is supplied by a rechargeable battery or a direct A/C connection. You must always remember to plug your device in on a regular basis, lest you’ll be greeted by a dark screen just when you’re ready to relax and dive into your book.
Printed books on the other hand, have no such restrictions. They remain accessible day or night, year after year, comforting in their reliability and not dependent on a flow of electrons to support their mission.
Physical books can be read anywhere there is enough light to illuminate their pages. While it is true e-books can essentially be read in the dark (one possible advantage), have you ever tried to read one on the beach? The ambient light around you washes out the image on the screen and ruins the user experience. And god forbid you should get it wet, or drop it on the pavement. Physical books are made for abuse. The stains, wear, fading and signs of use they exhibit only add to their sentimental value. Some even feel they develop a soul or spirit, which encompasses the energetic sum total of all those who have been enlightened or elevated by its humanity.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Many predicted the internet would harken the end of the printed word, since all information was now available at our fingertips. But the nefarious influence of capitalism has even tainted this grand vision, as much of this data can only be accessed at a price. And that price is either monetary or is paid via a passive surrender of your privacy and personal information. Even e-books which purport to provide useful wisdom or secret knowledge often turn out to only be elaborate marketing gimmicks for some additional product or service. Once you purchase an e-book online, the retailer of that book has your personal information and reading preferences, allowing them to sell that data to the highest bidder and/or send you tailored marketing ads engineered to fit your personal profile.
Therefore, the act of acquiring an e-book is not like the carefree experience of shopping for a book in the aisles of a bookstore: You buy it, you walk out with it and it’s yours, free of any encumbrances. Reading anything online or via a digital device leaves a digital signature; a trail of bread crumbs that retailers, corporations and government agencies can use to encroach on your personal life.
Printed books on the other hand do not live in the digital world. Once you buy them, they cannot ping data back to the World Wide Web about how often you read, how many pages you consume during each session or your psychological profile.
With the advent and the rapid roll out of Artificial Intelligence (AI), algorithms are now in use or in development that can decipher and store the most nuanced characteristics of your behavior, thoughts, disabilities, challenges and political leanings. This is the Slippery Slope we face in a future that is increasingly lived through devices. And one that should compel you to re-consider the innocence and simplicity of printed, physical books as a hedge against a corporate/governmental matrix that seeks to know and control you down to the level of your DNA.
Lest you write off my sentiments as “Conspiracy Theory”, just pay attention to the ads you receive on your phone and computer anytime you search for anything online. They will be customized to link up directly to your personal profile, which is sculpted and refined with every action you take and every purchase you make. By reading digital books, you open a new pathway for marketers to worm into your personal life. And it is precisely that vulnerability that disappears when decide to reconnect with the pleasantly old fashioned and reliable printed book.
Shane Eric Mathias