What is a book but the letters it contains?

Tim Parks wrote a piece in The New York Review of Books titled „E-books Can’t Burn„. It took me more than two weeks to overcome my own laziness to bring a response to this piece to the proverbial paper. I cannot and will not let this chance, to tell you what you ought to think about this topic, go by.

If you haven’t read the article and have low blood pressure, I highly recommend you read the article. If you are easily enraged, you are far better off just reading my comment.

Because I don’t really want to comment on the main part of his article I give you a short summary:
Parks talks about how the ebook is exactly like a real book but more convenient. It lets you focus more on the text because it is a continuous stream of lines and paragraphs and not distracting pages. Therefore, he claims, by adapting fonts and text size to your needs, one could focus more on the content of a book than its layout. Even though, he admits, this robs us of the ability to skim the book for clues as to how many pages are left in a chapter, so we can go to bed, or weigh in our hands, when the end of a book is near (because, obviously, as the end of an e-Book draws nearer, you don’t feel the imbalance of the open book in your hands).
Writing in the margins, he explains, is possible on some e-Book readers today and will become easier. But most importantly, he says, e-Books could never be burned. Just the devices they are read on.

And here is me calling absolute bullshit on the idea that this could ever be considered a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I will never throw away a book even less so burn it but I still consider its, let’s say „burnability“, that comes with real, physical paper a good thing.

A book can be taken to an author’s reading and you can get it signed. Good luck doing that with an e-book. But you can also write in a dedication of your own and make it a gift to a special someone or you leave out your little love note and make it a gift to a not so special someone else. Or just die and pass your books on to your kids. These are three things you will probably not be able to do with an e-book.

Books can be placed on a bookshelf and they withstand the passage of time. But still those books are marked by time and the age of a book is visible and feelable on every turn. Because of your emotions, your thoughts and feelings, every time you read a book, it changes because in your head it plays differently. But it also changes physically with every time you push it open, take it to the beach or let lose a tear on one of its many pages.

But in a way, once printed, the physical book is also forever unchanging. In January 2011, a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was to be published, excluding the – deemed as offensive – word „nigger“. It did not change every book previously printed. 18 Months earlier, Amazon.com remotely removed all copies of George Orwell’s „1984“ and „Animal Farm“ from Kindle devices (which certainly brings back memories of having always been at war with Eastasia). You can not burn an e-book but they don’t even have to come to your door to delete or alter an e-book if it was to be considered thoughtcrime. Let them try to find every last copy of a real paper-made book.

So this is what a book is for me. On the one hand the fragile nature of the medium, burning so easily but on the other hand it shows the resilience of ideas because they can stand the test of time, even if a corrupt government tries to censor and kill them. You may be able to remotely alter or delete an e-book but you can not kill an idea and you can not kill a book, as long as there is one single copy left.

I love books and I plan to inherit my father’s books and I plan to pass my books on to my children for they can read of the ideas my father read of and I read of so they can create the future they want to live in without being told which ideas are right, which are wrong and which are deemed decent enough to be allowed in a citizen’s library.

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