I’m comforted by the weight of a book in my lap on takeoff. The bulk of it holding me down, keeping me in place. The distraction of turned pages, the connection to something physical. Whenever the flight attendant used to come through the aisles instructing others to put away their Kindles and Kobos and iPads, I felt smug sitting there with my bulky hardcover, safe in the knowledge that as the plane rose above the clouds, I'd be in another world long before the rest of the plane would. (Or sometimes, honestly, tucked into the pages of a Vanity Fair royal scandal.)
But recently the TSA decided to let people use their portable electronic devices on takeoff and landing. And I'm not very happy about it.
I am not against the ebook, not in the least. I probably do 25 percent of my book reading on an iPad, which is stocked at all times with new fiction and old classics. The idea of the availability of a vast library of books at my fingertips makes me giddy from the possibilities. This is not about that. Neither is this a piece about the death of the publishing industry (which, last I checked, had a pulse and was doing laps around the Central Park Reservoir with the latest Donna Tartt doorstop balanced on its head). This isn't about what Amazon is doing to that industry (the proverbial foot stretched out from a bench near the Reservoir as the publishing industry and the indie bookstore happen to jog by).
What this is about is how sad I am to see people move exclusively towards the digital reading experience, for the ease of it, for the fact that it's one more way we can justify staring at that little screen for just a moment longer. The world is continuously making the move towards an entirely digital life easier by allowing it to take up more of our lives.
Publishers continue to try new things to try to fashion books better to the electronic experience, the worst of which might be communal reading, where comments from other readers—strangers or friends—appear on the screen as you read. I read a Kindle book with social highlights turned on once, and only once, and was saddened but not surprised to see that everyone tended to highlight the same overly flowery passages, the snippets that would be good in greeting cards or suspended over a blurry photograph and pinned on a Pinterest board called "Inspiration."
This is all just an attempt to replicate the physical experience in a digital world. The intent of social reading, the book club right there on your device, the recommendations via social networking book sites like Goodreads (which was bought by Amazon not long ago, and which now, to me, feels like a book review farm): It’s all scaled to mimic the comfort of the weight of a book in your lap on takeoff. It's marketed to us for ease and simplicity, but at its heart it's intended to replace the physicality of books and book clubs that actually meet over tea and cookies and libraries and bookstores with their hushed tones. "This is just like that!" screams the ebook. But it's not. It's nothing like that, and it shouldn't be.
To me the choice between physical books and ebooks has never been an either/or choice. I read and loved The Art of Fielding on my iPad. I could not do the same with Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger and ended up buying the bulky hardcover because it felt more correct for the text. Perhaps even one day I'll get behind social e-reading, if the particular content of the text calls for it. (Recently I picked up Marisha Pessl's Night Film in a bookstore and within a few pages knew instantly that I'd prefer it on my iPad, prefer it even more if it had actual links.) The hypertextualization of literature is not something that we should be against, but for every single book? Everything that's ever been written? I don't want to have to plug in my Hemingway, ever. It just doesn't feel right.
But to many, the choice between physical books and ebooks is an either/or choice, and the choice is increasingly the ebook, which, to me, is just one more sign of our desperation to be tied to our devices at all times.
I wish more people would still experience and treasure the papery smell of a bookstore, the hush of the library. I wish more people would feel the spine in their hands. Not just because we have to, but because we understand that this book just reads better when you can feel the weight of it in your lap. I wish more people would understand that comfort on takeoff and let go of their devices for just a moment.
Or this: Forget your book altogether, whether it's heavy in your lap or glowing there on your screen. Look out the window as the plane rises. Watch the houses slip away, the cars grow tiny and the fields grow into patterns. The offline experience is a treat that is forced upon us in fewer and fewer spaces: the car, the subway for not much longer, the hospital if we're unlucky. But being still in those moments, or losing yourself in the page—those are comforts that can't always, or shouldn't always—be replicated by technology.
Sometimes our most basic comforts just can't be improved upon.
Photo by Madelinetosh/Flickr