Give me a book, not an interface

Nostalgia for a world without virtual bookshelves and e-reading

I love reading books. I love collecting books. Books are adventures, companions, references, trophies. I love the way that the titles are embossed on the spines of hardcovers. The jackets of hardcover books are just wrapping, like shrink-wrap or blister-packaging: meant to be removed after purchase. I love the way that the corners of pages retain a little crease line if they are ever folded over at the corner to mark the reader’s place.

If the launch of Apple’s iPad, and along with it, the Kindle-rivaling iBook application, is the future, consider me unimpressed.

The iBook application features a virtual blonde oak bookshelf, which can be filled with little icons of books, purchasable from Apple’s own iBookstore, for about $10 a pop. The browsing experience mimics that of iTunes – optimized through top-selling lists, searches, and reviews. No comfy chairs and shelves and soft lighting. No floor-to-ceiling shelves decked with yellowing paperbacks, like those in any used bookstore. The future sounds sterile, homogenized.

I’ve used the iPhone version of the iBook app, while attempting to read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine on a car ride from New York to Philly. After four pages of small print and a creepy page-turn flicking sound, I opted to look out the window. Though the iPad version of the application promises life-size pages that even look like a real book when the device is held in portrait, I still can’t imagine curling up with a tablet and scrolling through a sci-fi novel.

Books – of the perhaps soon-to-be-old-fashioned material kind – record a history. My used copy of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams has entire pages doused in yellow highlighter. It belonged to someone else – someone else who not only read the very same words, but turned the very same pages. I have books that are signed by the author: Freeman Dyson’s scrawl in the front of The Scientist as Rebel, E. O. Wilson’s stick-figure rendition of an ant in the front of Nature Revealed. The back pages are filled with notes: “Soccer moms are the worst enemy of natural history – Wilson, June 2006, Natural History Museum,” jotted across the top of the index.

At my parents’ house, there are boxes filled with the likes of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, boxes that serve as a historical record of what I grew up reading with a flashlight after my bedtime. The inside front covers have my name written in them, in giant scrawl containing backward letters, in smaller neater print, in messy cursive, in smudged pencil, in gel pen ink. The copy of Ella Enchanted is severely water damaged from the time that I took it outside to read on the swing set, and then forgot about it.

I’ve held onto a National Geographic picture atlas titled Our Universe that bears the inscription: “Happy Eighth Birthday Shannon! Love, Dad and Mom.” I have pictures of my eight-year-old self holding the book and grinning; I remember chasing after my sister some years later upon discovering a bouquet’s worth of dandelions pressed between the terrestrial planets.

I have titles that I wouldn’t purchase for myself: two copies of the Bible, each a gift from Quaker meetings that my family has attended. A “Special 150th Anniversary Edition” copy of On the Origin of the Species printed on cheap paper was a gift from a friend, who acquired it free of charge just outside the University of Chicago’s campus. A quick examination reveals the true intention of the edition’s distribution: a 54-page “special introduction” of belief-based cliché statements on why evolution is wrong.

I lent out a copy of Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God at some point in high school, and never saw it again. I sometimes wonder whose hands it wound up in.

In the future, will books not have pasts? Or colours, smell, ink?
Will they become cheaper? Will they be pirated? Will novels go the way of free Internet blogging content? Will the children of tomorrow not go to the library and fill tote bags with picture books and Judy Blume, not grow up to fork over several summer paychecks on a semester of books? Is that really so bad?
Two strangers on the train who start conversing about Kurt Vonnegut is an improbable scenario without the prop of, say, an actual physical copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. Imagine leaning over someone’s shoulder as they stare at their tablet. Sometimes technology destroys privacy. Sometimes it increases it. One can view, read, write anything in public under the guise of a slick 8×11 interface.

Apple’s web site exclaims that the iBook application and the iPad represent a magical new technology, but when talking about the technology, Steve Jobs sounds underwhelmed and uninspired. The iPad keynote dedicates approximately two of its 92 minutes to the iBook app. Like the rest of the keynote, the two minutes are bland. Even Jobs’s dig at the Kindle is soft, almost complimentary: “We’re going to stand on their shoulders, and go a bit further.”

Jobs explains that the iBook application is great for reading books, great for buying books on the bookstore. Emphasis on bookstore, emphasis on buying: “We’re going to have a lot of books in the bookstore. We’re very excited.”

Is that really all that Apple can promise?
Maybe in the future, virtual books will be cheaper than their paperback counterparts. Maybe in the future, we’ll save whole forests by distributing bestsellers exclusively in iBook format. And in an online bookstore, there is unlimited storage space: maybe enough publishers will get on board, and maybe even the most esoteric titles will be accessible with just a click of a mouse. Perhaps one day, sitting on the train, or at the beach, or sprawled on the couch after a long day of work, reading a novel on the iPad won’t feel so awkward, or foreign, or new.

But Apple isn’t talking about any of the real advantages, or possibilities: the description of the iPad’s potential is limited to buzzwords: “revolutionary,” “magical.” It’s hardly enough of an argument to make me think I’ll be starting a library of iBooks anytime soon.

Shannon Palus’s column will be back in a few weeks. Tell her your life’s history in books at