Reality Check

Bookshelves at a library

What is a “real” book anyway?

I ask this in the context of the ongoing dispute over paper versus digital literature. Maybe people, myself included, casually refer to print editions as “real books.” And I certainly prefer the experience of reading a physical volume. The corporeal sensations are more pleasant–it’s easier on the hands, the back, and especially the eyes than on-screen reading. (Certain massive texts may be an exception.) But literature doesn’t exist in its medium: it exists only in the mind. To be succinct: print books are real, but the stories they tell are not.

The real medium of literature is words. Shakespeare’s plays never meant to be read (though the sonnets were). Homer’s epics were composed by an illiterate, since Homer was blind. In fact, spoken-word performance was the typical social assignment given to the blind in ancient days. Few people way back when read the great Greek epics; they listened to them. Audiobooks, done live!

Digital reading devices are every bit as real as print books. I care less for them for a number of reasons, the more bodily of which I listed above. Another is the surprising amount of power the internet sucks up. This was something none of us saw coming back in the day: we figured that delivering something with a few digital blips over a wire or radio wave was cleaner than sending it across country on a train or truck. But the tragedy of the commons has struck the digital realm: since folks perceive that the cost of digital delivery is so low that it may as well be zero, they now send much more material around than was our wont back in the days when matter was considered solid and eternal. I myself read onscreen frequently, mostly in French, since I can’t afford the US price of paper books printed in France, and my LA library’s selections are not vast in the language. I read all fifteen hundred pages of Les Miserables on my phone. I loved it.

But I know now that even in theses days of subatomic minuets directing our dance steps, there is a price: server farms, according to a 2016 Forbes article, are using some “some 70 billion kilowatt hours per year.” BitCoin, with its extreme computational necessities, has made this all too obvious these days–and in the service of what? A fiat currency that closely resembles a pyramid scheme, used mostly by thugs for money laundering, and by “investors” to generate unproductive income.

Meanwhile, the Internet is clogged by ads and trivialities, home movies and amateur-hour embarrassments, as well as partisan screeching from all sides, becoming a horrid blend of network pap and midnight cable eccentricity. However shallow the pixels on the screen, the tedium and terror they engender in our innocent minds are all too real. And–back on the subject of ebooks–Kindles serve you side orders of ads with every novel. (But then, many paperbacks reserve the last ten pages to shout about the publisher’s other offerings, and have for years. At least in America.)

All books are equally real, be they blinking on a screen or smeared on paper. All stories are equally unreal, until they soak through our brains to reach our souls.

Cozy up with a book or tablet, but cozy up and read. Take the time now and then to go to a spoken-word event. Catch a play, stop for a streetcorner poet, dig a lost volume of who-knows-what out of a secondhand bookstore. Words are what make us human, by letting us transcend the boundaries not only of our skins but of time and space. Become yourself with a book. Any book. Six thousand years of literature are waiting for you, hidden in plain sight. It’s your move next.

Rick Risemberg

1 Comment

  1. I prefer “real books”. I like the tangible, tactile feel of a paper and hardcover book in my hands and I relax in my chair and envelop myself in the story.

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