Earlier this month I watched “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” in preparation for the opening last week of the new “Star Trek” prequel movie. Yes, I’m a Trekkie geek in desperate need of a life. When I was in elementary school I spent hours in a La-Z-Boy-like recliner that was my pretend captain’s chair, staring at a huge piece of oak tag on which I had drawn images of outer space.
“The Wrath of Khan” opened in 1982, a generation and a half ago. Early in the film, Spock gives the aging Admiral Kirk a birthday present. Spock describes it as an antique. The gift? A book. It’s an edition of the Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and Kirk reads aloud the first sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I found this interesting because when the “Wall Street Journal” ran a powerful and thought-provoking article in April by Steven Johnson about the way the new generation of e-book technologies may change how we read, the newspaper illustrated the story with an e-book screen with that same opening sentence. The point? The times are changing. Something terrifying, dynamic, brilliant, and completely destabilizing is happening. The new digital technologies are resulting in a migration of information from paper to pixel.
To wit: In April I was speaking to about 400 students at Connecticut’s Cheshire Academy. I asked the young adults to raise their hands if they owned an iPod. Virtually every hand went up. Then I inquired how many of them had a parent with a separate iPod. Roughly two-thirds of the hands were raised. Next I asked how many owned an Amazon Kindle or a Sony e-Reader: About 10 hands went up. Finally, I asked how many of their parents had a Kindle or e-Reader: Perhaps 20 students raised their hands.
This is an inexact study, but the reality is that people are beginning to read books on slim, digital devices that hold lots of books and allow you to move among them and buy new ones almost wherever you are. Soon Apple may enter the fray with its dedicated e-book tablet. Already editors and sales reps at my publisher have been given Sony e-Readers to read manuscripts and books. My agent reads drafts of my novels on a Kindle.
Now, I love the book as a book: A stand-alone paper world that demands my complete attention. When I’m holding a book in my hands made of paper, I am not simultaneously surfing youtube.com for videos of Susan Boyle from “Britain’s Got Talent.” Moreover, what we put on our shelves in our homes is a means of defining who we are. When we recall what we read as children and teenagers (in my case, “Johnny Tremain” and “April Morning” and “The Catcher in the Rye”) we don’t merely remember the plot or the dialogue: We remember who we were, where we were, and the state of our families and friends when we first cracked the book’s spine.
I can glance at the books on the shelves in my home and see clearly in my mind where I was when I read many of them. Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” is the snack bar at Smith College, where my wife went to school, and the smell of the onions the cooks there placed on the hamburgers. Patrick Dennis’s rollicking tale of one Manhattan family’s 1960s-era dysfunction, “The Joyous Season,” is my living room in the middle of the night and my four-week-old daughter is, finally, asleep in my arms.
But just as big album covers have become antiques, someday might that dust jacket. It may not be in my lifetime. It may not be in my daughter’s lifetime. And it may not happen at all, because it is possible that paper books will live companionably with digital ones. Certainly this is my hope. Just as sometimes we want a hardcover and sometimes we want a paperback, perhaps someday we’ll want a paper book and sometimes we’ll be content with the digital version.
Nevertheless, as I watched Admiral Kirk cradle an antique called a book, I found myself wondering … what if.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 17, 2009.)