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Opinion: Books are better without pages

The paper book is dead. Long live the narrative.

library stacks
A man browses through books at the Cecil H. Green Library on the Stanford University Campus, Dec. 17, 2004 in Stanford, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Kindle owners buy twice as many books as non-Kindle owners. Just one of the many signs that while the paper book is dead, the narrative will live on.

If you are saying to yourself, “That sounds horrible. I hope books do not go away,” I ask you to consider the world’s poorest and most remote kids.

The manufactured book stunts learning, especially for those children. The last thing these children should have are physical books. They are too costly, too heavy, fall out-of-date and are sharable only in some common and limited physical space.

Paper books also do not do well in dampness, dirt, heat or rain. Not to mention that 320 textbooks require, on average, one tree and produce about 10,000 pounds of CO2 in manufacturing and delivery. This makes no sense. Kids in the developing world should not be sent physical books.

The only way to provide books to the 2 billion children in the world is electronically. You cannot feed children or clothe them electronically, but you can certainly educate and provide hope with these weightless, sizeless and mostly costless 1’s and 0’s.

Therein is the most practical reason that books cannot have paper pages. From here on in, it gets more subtle.

Right now, a paper book is undeniably more comfortable to read than a computer display. Furthermore, the physical book and the library are emblematic of and loved by a literate and informed society. The library is also a gathering place and social venue.

To suggest books are dead is considered heathen or geeky or both. And while today’s reading experience on an e-book is less than perfect, the basic concept is the right direction. They never go out of print. There is no marginal cost in making more. They are delivered at the speed of light. They take no storage space. They can be automatically translated. And, who knows, someday we will be able to squirt them directly into our heads without even reading.

When people argue against digital books they tell me about touch, feel and smell. There is a certain romantic conceit taking place. In this sense, the emergence of digital books is like indoor plumbing. Some people argued against indoor plumbing on the force of the damage it would do to the social fabric of a village (if the women did not meet daily at the river’s edge). Likewise, people will argue that the death of books is the death of a literate society.

What book lovers are really talking about when they talk about “feel” and “smell” is the physical interface from which you get a grasp (literally) of size and a sense of place (in the story). As you are
reading, the amount you have read is in your left hand and how far you have to go is in your right.

We all tend to remember the size and weight of books, the color of their jackets and where they are on our shelves, because our body was involved in all those actions (motor memory reinforcement it is called). We lose most of that with the little sliding bar (known as a feducial) at the bottom of a Kindle’s screen.

Also true about paper: the white is white, the black is black and the resolution is so high we do not think of it. Though, all these things will soon be true with e-books as well.

Some of what we can learn from paper books has transference. Some never will and society will have to get over it. This is not new. Think of music. Much attention was spent on high fidelity sound systems back in the day to reproduce music with utter verisimilitude. Today kids could care less. It’s about mobility, access anywhere all the time. We have gone from HiFi to WiFi.