• Canadian author and bookseller Deborah Willis discusses the differences between bound books and e-books.
• Willis argues “when books become computers, they will no longer be books.” Ultimately, she feels computers and the web are not well-suited to storytelling and diminish the experience of reading itself.
Editorial by Deborah Willis
VICTORIA, B.C.: The bound book is an ancient, heavy, environmentally dubious technology. But it’s also one of the most convenient, tactile, beautiful, and versatile things ever invented. It can contain odes, information, instruction, pornography, and photographs –– sometimes all at once. It can be highly cerebral or totally escapist. It can be kept on a coffee table or tossed in a purse. Its pages can be marked, folded down, and one can flip between them. It can be read on the subway, in a park, or on the beach. In fact, since many people only have time to read while on vacation, and since I’m lucky enough to live near an ocean, I often think the beach should be the ultimate test between the book and the ereader.
In this competition, the traditional book wins easily. It can be read in the glare of the sun, dropped in the sand, and you don’t have to worry about it being stolen if you go for a swim.
But it’s not just that ereaders strike me sterile and less convenient than advertised (or that I suspect producing gadgets –– which will break down or quickly become obsolete –– may be worse, environmentally, than printing paper books). There’s also this: when books become computers, they will no longer be books.
In a world where people read on electronic devices, books may become mash-ups of media, including music, video, and possibly advertising. (Advertising in ebooks is of particular concern if we distribute them for “free” or nearly free.) An electronic, interactive Alice in Wonderland is an incredible thing, and I’m intrigued by the possibilities of the technology. But the electronic Alice may be closer to a video game than to Lewis Carroll’s original. So perhaps I simply have a problem with the vocabulary: can something that is not bound, not made of paper, and not necessarily meant to be read –– can that thing still be called a book?
And if books are no longer envisioned and executed in the same way, will something of their essence be lost? Full disclosure: I work in a bookstore, so ebooks threaten my job and the jobs of many of my friends. I’m also an author whose book is available as an ebook. And I’m a reader who loves the simplicity of words on a page, which I’ve found contains the most possibility –– to inspire me, bore me, infuriate me, educate me, and enchant me.
Mostly, I’m a story writer. This means I like beginnings and endings, though not necessarily in that order. Most of the stories that appeal to me have to do with time, with the way it marches on, bringing loss or wonder or any number of surprises.
I find that computers in general, and the web with its various platforms and apps in particular, are so far not very good at capturing a sense of time, of movement, of story. Currently, the Internet is not built for stories, but for “information” and “content.” One link leads to another in no particular order, endlessly. On the web, we no longer have beginnings and endings. Especially endings. We can click and scroll forever. It’s something like a denial of death, and it’s addictive. It leaves me occasionally exhilarated, but mostly overwhelmed and exhausted.
How will traditional books –– with their sense of history, their King James Bible and their Shakespeare and their Flannery O’Connor –– how can they exist on the same phones and iPads that give us the ever-updating Internet? How can traditional stories about time’s movement, about the frailty of being alive –– how will they survive the transition to this new form of “content delivery?” How can the quiet, introspective solitude and focus required to read a book –– how can that exist on the same device that gives us email and Twitter and countless distractions?
My hope is that the traditional industry will be able to co-exist, on a smaller scale, with the new technology. There are many signs that this is possible: the existence of hundreds of wonderful book blogs, libraries that house both physical and electronic collections, books –– like House of Leaves –– that are published in gorgeous paper editions as well as extraordinary digital versions. And there’s me: a so-called literary writer who sometimes (hardly ever!) browses celebrity gossip sites for the latest on Lady Gaga and watches adorable YouTube videos of kittens eating peanut butter.
Both the old and the new exist firmly within me, and this must be true for most people. So I hope that my worries are unfounded (I can take it –– being an absolute hypochondriac, I’m used to unfounded worries). I hope it’s not books versus ebooks at all. I hope the new technology might broaden the definition of what a book is in ways that are inspiring for writers and readers, as opposed to impoverishing. In the brave new world we inhabit, a world without newspapers but with Tumblr and Chatroulette, a world where publishers will struggle and attention spans diminish, I hope there will remain a place for the writers and readers of books.
Deborah Willis was born in Calgary, Alberta, and currently lives and works as a bookseller at Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC. Her first book,Vanishing and Other Stories, was published in Canada last year. It was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and named one of the Globe and Mail‘s top 100 books of the year. It was recently released in the U.S. by Harper Perennial.
DISCUSS: When is an Ebook No Longer a Book?