In 2013, people still say things like, “I could never use an e-reader because I love the smell and feel of a paper book.” As if a person who enjoyed one could never enjoy the other. As if the moment you open up a PDF file, you become incapable of appreciating the beauty of objects.
The perception that digital culture is incompatible with the love of object-as-art, or art-as-object, is weird.
Look at crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com. They’re creatures of the digital age — and direct reactions to changing business models. But a big part of crowd-funding culture — at least when it comes to creative projects — is an appreciation for special, collectible, tangible things.
One of the benefits of backing a new book or album on a crowd-funding site is that you might get swag in the mail: a signed print, a custom T-shirt. Crowd-funders are not afraid of the Internet; neither are they contemptuous of well-made objects. And the feeling of connection between backers and creators is similar to the feeling book collectors have always sought, the feeling of holding in your hand an object signed by a writer you admire.
I typically carry two smartphones and an ancient iPod in my purse or pockets, maybe my iPad or Kindle too, if I expect to have some time to kill. Most of my book purchases are in electronic form these days.
I’m also, still, a book collector. My birthday request to my family this year was a pre-order of the signed, limited hardcover of Neil Gaiman’s next novel, which is coming out this summer. It costs $150. It’s worth it, to me, because I know it will be the kind of book that I will love for decades, that I’ll look at the way some people look at paintings. I know that the publisher, Subterranean Press, makes beautiful books.
I am happy to find space in my budget and on my shelves — the nice ones, behind glass — for such an object. But I have no desire to add another flimsy paperback of a book I might like to the groaning overflow piles on the floor, on the dresser, on — heaven help me — the ironing board. I’d much rather buy the electronic version in those cases.
And unless I can be sure that interacting with the physical book will be an experience in itself, I’d much rather read on my Kindle, which is lightweight and easy on the hands and eyes. I buy more books now than I ever did in the pre-e-book days. The shelf space now is reserved for the books that are beautiful, or that mean something personal to me as objects.
That’s what’s changing. It’s not true that the 21st century cares only about content and is indifferent to form. Form matters more now. If you’re going to ask me to buy a book on paper rather than on the iPad, or vice versa, then give me a reason. Use the medium to advantage.
Often, the very people who are most comfortable with new technology are also interested in a do-it-yourself esthetic — not as a critique of technology or modernity, but because it’s fun to go at the world with a screwdriver. Steampunk culture can be an example of that. So is the “maker” world view that emphasizes the nobility of tinkering with things and figuring them out — whether the things in question are programs, laws, languages or game consoles.
“A maker is someone who is of and in the 21st century,” as Canadian writer Cory Doctorow told the Guardian.
One of the technologies Doctorow explores in his fiction is 3-D printing, a technology that erases the line between the digital world and the world of things. Attempts to divide society into people who like technology and people who like crafted objects look silly now; they’ll look sillier still in a few years.
Book-lovers and technology lovers are not enemies. Often they’re the same people. A recent article in the New York Times reported that independent bookstores had a good holiday season, in part because of the popularity of the Kobo, an e-reader designed to work with independent retailers.
Of course, not everything is rosy in the book industry. A lot is going to change and some of it is going to be painful.
But the reason for that is not that people have forgotten how to appreciate beautiful objects.
© Copyright 2013