Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Mass Effect of Books

There has been a lot written about why paper books are better for the brain and better at being, well, books. Something about reading from a page of paper, possibly magnified by handling the paper as one reads, adds to our comprehension: we are better readers from paper than we are from screens. Maybe it's in our DNA. It might take some practice to get past a few thousand years of reading from physical surfaces. But what about how amazing books are all together?

Photos of beautiful spaces full of books are popular on social media sites. There are cathedral-like spaces filled with thousands of books shelved all the way up to the rafters, old libraries and reading rooms stretching off into the hazy distance, jammed with old leather-bound tomes. There are bookstores of otherworldly proportions, built in repurposed old churches, factories, banks. There is something about seeing so many books shelved together in wonderful spaces that is awe inspiring. 

For me, one of the advantages indies always had over the chains, in the old wars, was that they were bursting with books. The chain superstores had a wide open feel, big empty wall spaces filled with really great graphics, spacious reading areas filled with big comfy furniture, lots of padded carpet in wide aisles. But many of the indies, especially the ones that survived the battle, are crammed with books. Yes, they are beautifully merchandised, the interiors are sometimes award winning retail spaces, but these spaces are completely dominated by endless surfaces of books, everywhere the eye can go. There are a couple that I can think of which verge on the dangerously overstocked, to the point of being difficult to navigate for fear of being buried under a collapsing stack of books or, I think the technical term is, perfect.

It feels great to walk into one of these places, or any place full of books, any library or bookstore. Quiet, vast, inviting, they convey a palpable sense of permanence and wonder. One of the perks of working in a bookstore or library is opening cartons of new arrivals, getting that first look and feel. But it is the mass effect of all those countless books together that is capable of altering awareness. Standing in a large library or bookstore or any vast book collection, looking down an endless aisle lined with books from floor to distant ceiling, is a unique experience. 

Even in this age of mass production, knowing that each of those volumes on that wall of books, in the entire world full of books, was created after the painstaking, zillion step process it takes to publish a physical book, boggles the mind.  

Knowing that a hard drive the size of a sandwich can hold all human knowledge, a truly amazing achievement of computer science, while interesting, is not the same thing. It does not take us to the same place. Experiencing e-books, on whatever device with whatever technology, is a singular, one-by-one experience. We look at a list of books, we decide based on the list to pick one to investigate before reading, we click on that one. It might be an image, but we are still looking at a flat, undifferentiated list. We might read the reviews or some bibliographic details and make the decision, either to read that particular book or continue on down the list. We process this all while our eyes are unblinkingly fixed on a screen we can hold in our hand.

There are thousands of authors writing wonderful works and being published solely in the digital marketplace. Some of these authors are among the best writing today. Many of them are completely and totally alone, writing, publishing, and promoting their works to a faithful following of grateful readers. I believe that within a generation or two, as we come to grips with the fact that real books will not go away, the works of these digital authors will increasingly be published also as real books, perhaps by new publishers or new divisions at existing publishers, dedicated to mining this treasure trove. Their works will continue on as digital masterpieces, but will also be added to those beautiful cathedrals of books.
Want to read more about real books vs e-books, the mind-paper connection, and the resurgence of bookstores? Check out this list of articles:

And for more thoughts about reading and physical books:

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