Thursday, November 18, 2010

The loss of the tactile

With the introduction of the Ipad (horrid brand name that it is) in January 2010, I was as intrigued as any other person with even a vague interest in new technology. Its functions - marketed as "a platform for audio and visual media such as books, periodicals, movies, music, and games, as well as web content" - catapulted me into the future with visions of my daughter accessing even more advanced tools in her own life as a reader.

Is it likely that she will have as many shelves of books as her parents once had? Or will she find herself with this kind of device that carries not one but dozens, if not hundreds, of books, in one neat technological package? Something that she can throw in her knapsack or bag.

The earliest books were written on scrolls. It wasn’t until 2 A.D. that books were bound at one edge in a format that would now be familiar to us. It’s unlikely that those few literate persons who made the transition from the reading of scrolls to the reading of books, as we know them, suffered a great deal of anxiety about that transition. Regardless of the beauty of the scrolls themselves, they, as readers, were likely amazed and intrigued by the changed and improved format.

One thing that music lovers and cranky Luddites of a certain age regret, even as they embrace the new technology of downloading their favourite music and replacing all of their old albums and cassettes with CDs, is the loss of the tactile pleasures of holding an album, turning it over, reading the notes, looking at the cover art, etc …

As a reader I share the same sensuous pleasure in the construction of a book: favouring the art on one cover over another edition, favouring a hard copy over a paperback, considering its size and heft in my hands, admiring the colour of the stock, scrutinizing the font size, the quality of the paper. In short, fetishizing the whole physical experience of reading. One of my favourite places to read is the Hart House Library at the University of Toronto. The books are old and often decades out of date.The selection is small and haphazardly chosen it seems. The librarian is nowhere in view (neither as a student nor a staff member have I ever seen a librarian in that place).

I have tried to be more judicious about what I buy now thinking (very morbidly) the kid will have to shift all this one day and will, I fear, be cursing the names of, and shaking her fists at, those who gave her life for burdening her with all these books.

As I was writing this piece, I was also thinking of the artist Robin Pacific who promised a few years ago to give away almost her entire library of 1,670 titles at Red Head Gallery. Could I do so, would I do so? After my initial feelings of mortification I thought how liberating that might be as well. Sort of the liberation one might feel in having an entire library on a computer you could hold in your hand.

This technological future for books seems inevitable. It’s possible now, it’s just not commonplace or the norm. Will my daughter cart hundreds of books from one new home to another as she moves about? Not likely. Will she spend $20 or $30 on a book? Probably not. I don’t imagine that’s a loss that she’ll mourn. Will she miss holding a book in her hands? I would like to hope so but I’m doubtful about that as well.

Initially published in an altered form on on February 2nd, 2007.


Christine said...

I am a lot older than your daughter — I’m in my 40s — and at one time I owned hundreds of books. Now I own tens — I kept only the very special ones. I touch and read them often.

Almost everything else I read for pleasure these days is housed in a neat technological package. I guess this is the future…and I am not so sure how I feel about it either.

I just knew I could not move house again with that many boxes.

Michelle said...

Yeah, maybe it is my advancing age but I dread the idea of moving all this stuff again (we have moved four times sinse I married) which I know will eventually happen. And I think it would be an unfair burden to J to have her do so as well. Especially as she will likely be walking around with the newest version of the Ipad or some such device.

Cheryl said...

It is handy to have so many books on a small, lightweight device - but it feels like something precious is lost with each new invention . . .

Ah, well. Resistance is futile. You must be assimilated!!!