When I was a student in London, Ont., 30 years ago, I took occasional Saturday trips to Toronto. I would go up one side of Queen West – then Toronto’s used book mecca — and down the other, stopping in every secondhand bookstore. I had a big backpack, and I often filled it.
Things haven’t changed much. There’s a small room behind the kitchen in our house with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on one wall, and cupboards on another about half filled with paperbacks. Most of one wall of my office is books.
I haven’t read all these books. I hope I will eventually, but like most book-lovers I buy them knowing I already have enough reading matter to last for years. And that back room is lined with books partly because I like – and fortunately my partner also likes – having books around.
For us, e-books will never replace the old-fashioned paper kind. And that’s true of a lot of readers, especially those my age and older. Something about books goes beyond the content. We will always want the physical objects.
But not everyone feels that way. Most of the secondhand bookstores are gone from Queen West now, and if a student wanted to buy up a backpack full of used books today, he or she could do it online at sites likes Abebooks. But will people continue buying paper books?
Attempts at electronic books go back quite a few years, but reading on a screen never worked very well until recently. Displays weren’t good enough, and the machines were too bulky.
But devices like Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader get rid of that objection. Once you have a highly portable device with a display that does a pretty good imitation of a printed page, reading an e-book becomes pretty much like reading a traditional book in the important ways – you can carry it around with you, sit in a comfortable chair, lie on the beach – you don’t want to read it in the bathtub, but other than that, it works.
Of course Amazon’s recent ill-considered remote deletion of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from customers’ Kindles because of a copyright problem raises a bit of concern. You can’t call it censorship when the books are widely available elsewhere, but it shows that e-books aren’t as permanent as real ones.
But e-books have advantages. Reading matter for a week at the cottage can be heavy and bulky. If you’re delayed at the airport, an e-book lets you download something more to read.
Despite their charm, paper books are inefficient. That’s even more true for newspapers and magazines. If you’re trying to distribute information quickly, why print it on large sheets of paper and hire children to throw it on doorsteps? Up to now the answer has been, because it’s easier to read at the breakfast table or on the subway, but the right electronic devices can change that.
Does that make readers like the Kindle the way of the future, though? I wouldn’t count on it. Its appeal to those who grew up with paper books is partly the fact that it so closely resembles the old format, but a single-purpose e-book reader is also another piece of equipment to carry around. A single device that serves as phone, e-book reader, pocket computer and camera won’t look like anything that’s around today.