“A book is simply the container of an idea — like a bottle; what is inside the book is what matters.” So said the English novelist and journalist Angela Carter. She’s absolutely right of course, blasphemous as it may sound to those who venerate the printed book as a kind of holy item, a totem of intelligence and wisdom.

“What the devil is he on about now?” I hear you exclaim. What I’m referring to dear reader, is the perpetual ideological fracas of the value of eBooks versus print books. I know you’ve heard of it. Indeed, you may have even waded into such tempestuous waters yourself on one side of the other. Passions run high in both camps, though I would submit that the most vociferous arguments come from the print side.

This is somewhat understandable. The print industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, have felt the hot breath of the digital dragon breathing down their necks for some time now. It is true that technology is causing massive disruption in many areas of the media, a sizeable chunk of the “blame” for the plight of print publications has to be laid at the feet of the publishers themselves. Like the entertainment industry, the publishing industry has been resistant to change, desperately hanging on to old business models and ways of doing things. Instead of working with technology to create a new paradigm where everyone benefits, they get left behind.

“Yes, yes that’s all well and good, but what about books and this totem nonsense you were on about at the beginning?”

Stay with me dear reader, I’m getting to the salient points now. The eBook has inarguably been a massive success. Companies such as Amazon have opened publishing to nearly everyone, so much so that the idea of publishing through a publishing house is becoming almost archaic.

eBook readers bring with them specific benefits unique to the device’s form factor:

  • The ability to store entire libraries in a small, easy to carry form.
  • Screens that are not backlit like phones or computers, making reading far more comfortable.
  • The ability to annotate, and even look up words and references on wi-fi/net enabled models.

“Ahem… Totems?”

Yes… right. I said earlier that some people venerate the printed book as a kind of totem of wisdom; it seems like an age ago doesn’t it? We’ve been through so much together since then. But we can pick up from where we began, I hope.

My point was that printed books are often given a status normally restricted to items of a seraphic or divine nature: the Shroud of Turin, Buddha’s tooth, Mickey Mantle’s rookie baseball card… that sort of thing.

“Steady on Mackenzie… There’s no need to be flippant about sanctified objects. Hank Aaron’s card would be much more appropriate.”

Right. I um… stand corrected. Anyway, as I was saying, the problem with venerating books to the level of a fetish – gauche, but entirely accurate – is that it entirely misses the point of the written word. The ideas contained within the book are the point of the venture, not the structure that contains them. If Jane Austen had chosen to write Pride and Prejudice on the side of a wall, Toni Morrison had penned Beloved on a roll of paper towels, or Ernest Hemingway had uploaded The Sun Also Rises to an eBook reader, it would take nothing way from their brilliance, masterful construction and cultural significance.

If I may, allow me to quote the actor, comedian, author, journalist, broadcaster, film director and general intellectual bright spark Stephen Fry:

“…the literary-minded elevate the book and the written word to a degree of aboriginal reality that is as absurd and dishonest as claiming that the trouble with computer games is that they stop people watching television. Writing and books are technology: they happen to be older than sit-com, that’s all. They are as responsible for creating styles and reflexes of thought and expression as any commercial or Hollywood blockbuster. Don’t get me wrong: books are great and good, but a thoughtless snobbery that respects them as totems and pathways to enlightenment, truth and Vedic happiness in themselves is dangerous and deluded.”

I have had conversations with book lovers which have been at times quite awkward, both from the disproportionate level of vitriol and revulsion heaped on eBooks, and the effusion of adulation and idolatry they have for the vade mecum.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I love books. There is a satisfying physicality to the printed book that is most assuredly missing from its electronic cousin. Indeed, I’ve recently written about my attempt to write a book by hand, so I do understand the pleasure of the printed page. However I don’t think it’s healthy to fetishize books, particularly at the expense of other formats.

We are quickly reaching a point (indeed, we may already be there) where some works are only being published digitally. By demonizing eBooks and other alternative formats, we cut ourselves off from future life-enriching masterworks.

As human beings, we create and shape our world through the power of ideas. Ideas that move us forward culturally, intellectually, spiritually and even physically are worthy of our passion, and yes, even our veneration. The format in which these ideas are presented however, is largely irrelevant.

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