I recently witnessed a passionate conversation between dear friends championing the merits of the printed word over the digital word and, conversely, the merits of the digital word over the printed. Even though I love and seek impassioned discourse, I couldn't participate in the discussion because when this subject comes up, I hop right on the fence and straddle it.
As an avid reader I take pride and comfort in my library of printed works ranging from Primo Levi's The Periodic Table to Sue Grafton's methodical trek through the English alphabet. I enjoy my books. I wander from bookcase to bookcase gazing at titles. I marvel that I have read so many books and that I have so many more to read. To further complicate my fence straddling, I own a digital reader from which I frequently, well, read. I love my books. I like my digital reader.
As an author I also straddle the paper-versus-virtual fence because my novel But This Is Different is available in both printed and digital form. The format in which readers experience the speculative relationship between Amelia Earhart and Margaret Mead matters less to me than their act of entering the story's 'what if' world. On days when the digital versions outsell the printed version, I am not devastated, nor am I on days when the print version appears more popular than the digital versions. Either way, I am honored that people purchase and read the book.
The rising popularity of digital readers, according to the conversations I overhear (but in which I cannot participate because of the fence thing) is perceived by the devotees of paper as a threat to the very existence of the printed word. The defenders of paper truly care that books as we know them today not disappear. They cite a variety of observations to prove that print is more meaningful than digital.
"You don't have to stop reading when the airplane takes off or begins its descent."
"I like to underline and make notes and that's harder to do with an eReader."
"I like the feel of a book. I like to hold it and turn the pages."
"I don't have to plug in my paperback book. I can read it during long power failures."
Those are all valid points and if I were participating in the conversation I would not argue against any of them.
Devotees of the digital don't seem so impassioned. They don't seem to worry that the way they read might be putting an entire industry, an entire culture or even civilization itself out of business.
"When I go on trips I can take a lot of books with me without lugging around the actual books."
"It's fun. I read more."
Oops. I may be sliding off the fence and moving into the land of 'As Long As We Read It Doesn't Matter How We Do It.'
While I'm still straddling the matter, though, I will share some observations. My first observation: Guests in my home will know because of the books I display that, while I am not Catholic, I am a person of catholic interests. They will also know that I am a lover of the written word and hopefully will take the next step and presume that I am also a reader of the written word. My second observation: When I am a guest in a home, I can browse the books and better know the person I visit. My third observation: If it's the middle of the night and I want to delve deeper than a quick internet search into any given topic, I can have immediate access to thousands of books in digital form. My fourth observation: My home can contain a finite number of books and bookcases. Unless I rent or buy a second home just for my books, there can only be a set number of books in my home that I have yet to read. With my digital reader I can own a practically unlimited number of unread books and thus feel even more overwhelmed with the knowledge that I can never in my lifetime read everything of interest than is my current dilemma with my library of printed books. My fifth and final (at least for now) observation: Hearkening back to my first observation, by our libraries are we known. Our digital reading provides invisibility and with invisibility can come anonymity and isolation. Isolation and anonymity concern me because neither taken to extreme speaks to wellbeing.
With this writing I have abandoned the digital versus print fence to claim residence in the land of 'As Long As We Read It Doesn't Matter How We Do It' with only one caveat. For the sake of our own and for the sake of all critical thinking, caring communities, let's keep talking with passion about what we read. Let's agree, disagree, and challenge but let's keep the discussions alive. By so doing we contribute to our own survival.
Come to think of it, let's also keep the digital versus print debate going and hope that the issue is never resolved. After all, it's the conversation and not the outcome that matters. It's the reading and not the format that defines who we are individually and collectively.