Three years ago, I unwrapped a present I didn’t think I could keep. My parents gifted me an Amazon Kindle which stayed in shrinkwrap stasis for a week. I unboxed it and loaded it with Murakami and Project Gutenberg freebies only after convincing myself that an e-reader didn’t mean that my library was going the way of my Pokemon card binders.
In 2013 it’s looking like the e-reader, not the bound book, is meeting the fate of the holographic Charizard. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece titled “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?”, which cited the slowing sale of dedicated e-readers in the last year. IDC, an industry research firm, estimates that sales of e-readers dropped 28% from 2011 to 2012, making 2011 the high water mark for the devices.
The decline in e-reader sales doesn’t necessarily mean people are flocking back to print. It’s likely that increased usage of iPads and other tablet devices is eating away from sales. There is an irony in this data that can’t be ignored: e-readers, heralded and derided as the electronic executioner of print, have been cut down by yet another tech innovation.
In its brief golden age, the e-reader has taught me something. It has made me appreciate print in a way I never could if I hadn’t unwrapped my Kindle that Christmas, or my iPad the next. While new technology only makes its previous incarnation obsolete, I’ve found that tech innovations bring to light positive aspects of their pre-tech precursors that would otherwise go unappreciated.
When these devices were first introduced, their small size and feather weight were stacked as advantages against cumbersome hardcovers. But the physical nature of books now seems like an obvious advantage for print. I used to be neurotic about keeping my paperback covers and dust jackets as crisp and untarnished as the day I bought them. But after using the dull, unchanging body of the kindle or the iPad’s smashable screen, I learned to love breaking in books. Dog-eared covers, wrinkled corners, and coffee rings became beautiful to me. They showed character and experience, the way a well-worn leather jacket can, but an e-reader or tablet cannot.
I love books for accepting love roughly. Every day I carry an assortment of expensive electronics I handle gingerly, and to carry an object that I can drop from a cafe table or throw in a backpack without wincing is a relief. Five years ago, the fact that a book can be thrown against a brick wall and still be read would not be considered an advantage. In our anxious era of cracked screens, it’s a selling point.
There’s more to value about the book’s physicality than its resilience to hard-living. I cherish the physical changes a book undergoes while I read it because the books I read change me. Before I was finished with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it suffered numerous water stains, accepted my underlines and lost its front cover, but it had changed everything I thought about structure and narrative, and I treasure that journey as much as any trip I’ve taken. After the last page is closed, printed books become monuments to the experience they provided, and the people we were when we read them.