The recent onslaught of e-readers was announced with a veneer of the best of intentions. The book needed improving, said one maven, who also sells diapers and soup online. An MIT visionary predicted that in five years we will read almost no paper books—just digital devices. The book would become a relic, a collector's item, the e-experts agreed. And of course with the death of the book, our bookstores and libraries would wither and die.
The e-experts said that in the future all information and literature would be available on the device of the moment (sure to be replaced by the device of the next moment). You may never have to leave the comfort of home or bed. The latest bestseller—indeed, millions of out-of-print books (you didn't know you needed that many)—could be had at the click of a button. This was billed as an improvement.
Lots of people are making lots of money telling us this is for our own good. Tweeting away, we never stop to think. In fact, we may be losing the ability to think.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), Nicholas Carr notes that after years of digital addiction, his friends can't read in depth anymore. Their very brains are changing, physically. They are becoming "chronic scatterbrains... even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb."
Carr continues: "For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg made reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it's been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind on Modernism. It may soon be yesterday's mind."
Because our brains can no longer think beyond a tweet, we can't write well. And we can't read well either. The idea of reading—let alone writing—War and Peace, Bleak House, or Absalom, Absalom! is fading into an impossible dream.
In any case, what serious writer would create exclusively for an e-reader? It's like farting into the wind. Writers hope, mostly in vain, that their work will endure for a few years or even centuries, in handsome printed and bound volumes. Why bother at all if your words are to be digitized into instantly accessible and disposable battery-dependent gas?
Some think that the e-reader will save trees. Soon, according to a recent New York Times article, we will possess over 100 million e-readers. What a savings in our forests, right? Wrong.
Here's what an e-reader is: a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa. To make one e-reader requires 33 pounds of minerals, plus 79 gallons of water to refine the minerals and produce the battery and printed writing. The production of other e-reading devices such as cellphones, iPads, and whatever new gizmo will pop up in the years ahead is similar. "The adverse health impacts [on the general public] from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those for making a single book," says the Times.
Then you figure that the 100 million e-readers will be outmoded in short order, to be replaced by 100 million new and improved devices in the years ahead that will likewise be replaced by new models ad infinitum, and you realize an environmental disaster is at hand. We will have lost a chunk of our planet as we lose our minds to the digital juggernaut.
Here's what it takes to make a book, which, if it is any good, will be shared by many readers and preserved and appreciated in personal, public, and university libraries that survive the gigantic digital book burning: recycled paper, a dash of minerals, and two gallons of water. Batteries not necessary. If trees are harvested, they can be replanted.
I co-edited Book Love—a collection of observations on writing, reading, and the tradition of printed and bound books—for those who still love books. Books are our history and our future. If they survive, we will, too. Books, readers, writers—on this tripod we keep the faith.
Book Love, edited by James Charlton and Bill Henderson, is out from Pushcart Press on April 23, the International Day of the Book.