Oh, Are We Still Doing the Thing Where We Complain About E-Books?

I have come out of unintentional blog-retirement to give you the gift of this rant.

The Guardian just published an article called “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip.’” It’s about the leveling off of e-book sales and the resurgence in sales of print books, and it comments on why that might be so, using a combination of author speculation and quotes from authorities. I don’t find anything in the article itself offensive (though I did find it interesting–we’ll check back on the contents a bit later on in the post). What I find offensive is this same old tired sentiment, as expressed by the Twitter user here.

Tweet by @Rose_Pereira: "Good news, book sales are up. Real books. The paper kind."

Can we stop with this?

The insinuation that print books are objectively superior to electronic books in any way is more than exasperating at this point. If you think print books are aesthetically superior to electronic books, I understand. But let’s be real. This isn’t about aesthetics.

Moral Horror or Classist Peacocking?

The attitude that print books are superior reminds me of Kant’s “Judgment of the Beautiful.” Kant in essence says that when we determine something to be beautiful, we’re talking about something bigger than, say, our favorite color. If your favorite color isn’t the same as mine, I don’t think you’re any more right or wrong than me, and I don’t think one color is objectively better. I accept that people have their own tastes. But if I say a sunset is beautiful and you say it isn’t, you’re not allowed to have your own tastes. I’m appealing to something bigger than taste, and I believe there’s something wrong with you if you’re not on my level. Almost morally wrong.

Let’s relate Kant’s theory to the idea that print books are better than e-books. If you prefer physical books to e-books, it’s the equivalent of having a different favorite color. But by claiming “real books” are superior, you’re acting as if you instead have a superior moral standing. You’re appealing to some higher law that we should all abide by, some concept of good and evil. People also thought that the Gutenberg press would be ruinous to society for moral reasons. And then TV. In fact, name a medium, and I’ll find you someone who said it’s going to be the ruin of us in some way.

But let’s complicate this a bit more, because the print-book-worshipers I’ve encountered aren’t actually as simple as that. They’re posturing.

Most people who hate e-books don’t really carry the same pitch of hysteria that other hell-in-a-handbasketers do. If you read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you’ll catch a whiff of genuine horror and fear in his tone. It’s the same shake you hear in the voice of all luddites prophesying about how any technology that scares them actually heralds the end of civilization.

I don’t hear panic in the voices of those who feel print books are objectively superior to other formats. I hear superiority. I hear self-satisfaction. Sure, they’ll throw a lot of talk around reminiscent of Carr’s article (“people scan digital text instead of reading deeply,” “technology is taking away our humanity,” blah, blah, blah), but their real message isn’t one of morality.

Nope. To publicly worship the print book and shame every alternative is about posturing. It’s a way to convey classic education and delicate sensibilities. It’s a way to say, “I’m super smart—AMA!” You are playing dress-up as the person you want to be perceived as, just as much as if you’d put on your tweed jacket with the elbow pads and the round bookworm glasses.

And here’s where The Guardian article starts to make real sense. The resurgence of books isn’t about the books themselves. It’s about getting seen with books. What could people who hope to present as bookworms want more than that?

The Book as an Accessory

When it comes to the resurgence of the print book, The Guardian article gives a large amount of credit to an Instagram hashtag.

#Bookstagram [is] a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

There you have it. Print-lovers, if you’re sincerely concerned about the decay of reading in our society, shouldn’t the Instagram-brow-ing of literature be your first target? Shouldn’t the turning of it into a fashion accessory be where you focus your war cry?

But here’s the thing. Print books are something to be seen with. Your book is a signal, just like a lawyer’s Mercedes is signal. And people who proclaim the objective superiority of print are often the type that wear their books in public whenever possible. So #bookstagram is their jam, if ever there was a jam to be had. You won’t catch them criticising it.

The Real Bone to Pick

Here’s the thing, though. Social signaling is so important to how we connect with others, and that’s not my problem with print-celebrators. Sure, I’ve been talking negatively about posturing, but book-signaling is a great way to make friends, possibly on a deeper level than just about any other type of signaling. I instantly want to talk to everyone I see that has a tattoo sleeve or rainbow hair, and this historically has been a pretty bad predictor of who I might actually make a real human connection with. But if I see someone reading Crime and Punishment, we are going to have an awesome talk, no questions about it.

The problem I have is the insinuation that the signaling is more than just signaling or taste is more than just taste.

I don’t care if you love print or e-books. I don’t care about bookstagram. I don’t care if you wear your book like an accessory. I don’t care if your favorite color is green and mine isn’t. We all have things we aesthetically love. We all signal. Sometimes we use things we aesthetically love to signal. No big deal. But you don’t get to say something subjective is objective because you feel like taste gives you some imaginary high ground.

Especially when you have the opposite of the high ground.

If we’re going to start making high-ground-based arguments, print book lovers are in serious trouble. Look at what Laura Brady noted about the tweet shown earlier in this post.

@LauraB7 response to @Rose_Pereira: "Hot tip: ebooks are 'real' books. More real than real if you have a print disability, even."

During my first few years of college, I had several classes with a friend who was blind. I’ve had very few experiences that were more revelatory than watching her try to navigate the learning process without all the things we students took for granted—handouts, photocopied syllabi with handwritten changes, scantron tests, and, of course, textbooks.

Imagine if her textbooks were available on a Kindle, which can now read your book to you. In fact, making books electronic is the first step in making a whole new world accessible to people with disabilities. It won’t be long before someone with dyslexia can switch the font on an e-reader to Dyslexie or Comic Sans. And for those with reading comprehension issues, public notes and the ability to press-and-hold a word to see the definition can put right at your fingertips the material you’d have to go look up.

 To Sum Up…

I prefer e-readers as a medium now, personally, but I understand the appeal—even the romance—of print books. I remember going to our quarterly library sale and coming home with bags spilling over with paperbacks, and that was one of my favorite feelings in the world. I think about books like House of Leaves, and I’m grateful to print for giving us a gift like that.

This all being said, no matter what my personal preference is, I would never proclaim that the way I like to read is more “real” than someone else’s prefered way of reading. No one should confuse taste with objective fact.