Maybe you have one too, or a Nook, an app on your phone, some other gizmo to pull out when you’re in that mood. Maybe you’ve sworn off eBooks altogether. I don’t really care.
What I do care about is when you assume that one way is better than another.
Do you know what a book is? Sometimes I wonder if people do… I’m sure that many people think a book is a bound volume that can be set on a shelf, or a small file that can be read on a device. Those definitions appear deceptively true, but that is all they are—deceptive. No, these are simply the things that give character to a book, so that indeed it might sit on a shelf or a device. It is a dimension.
A book is not a physical thing. A book is a meal. We writers stew our words and pepper them with dreams and plot bunnies and deaths picked fresh from the vine. They are cooked and rinsed and simmered and served, so that it is not a collection of food to be consumed standing over the sink, but a meal—a real meal—to be served and shared and enjoyed among friends and comrades. They are the ideas that nourish our souls.
There are a lot of pretentious readers who assume that they receive a fuller experience because they could test the fibers of the pages with their fingers. There are a lot of pretentious readers who assume they too receive a fuller experience because they have read the book the modern way. Both are wrong.
Picture Independence Day. The neighborhood families have set up shop in the park, and your dad and Mr. Mendoza next door chat over their spatulas while they wait for the burgers to brown. Mom helps set up the food on the picnic tables—watermelon, potato chips, carrots, tomatoes, pickles, even an apple pie! A few of the other parents set up fireworks in the street, and you smile, because the neighborhood feels like home, and it is divine.
“Burgers are ready!” Mr. Mendoza calls. Finally! You rush to the line, where Dad is passing out plates pre-filled with burgers and buns. He passes you yours, and you stare.
“I can’t eat this,” you say. “It’s on a paper plate.”
Dad blinks. “So?”
Ugh, old people. “Dad! I can’t eat my food off of a paper plate. What kind of person do you think I am? Paper plates are bad for the environment! I won’t have really had anything to eat if I got it off a paper plate—I want to eat my food the right way, on a porcelain plate.”
“Are you joking?” Dad busies himself with handing out the rest of the traitorous burger-filled paper plates. “You can’t bring porcelain plates to a picnic. Who would you expect to wash them? It’s cheaper and easier for everyone this way. Besides, what if one of them broke? There are little kids running around; it could be dangerous. Trust me, paper plates are better.”
“It won’t be a real meal without porcelain plates,” you insist. “They look better.”
“Well it ain’t gonna be a picnic without paper ones!” Dad retorts. “This is all we have—eat off a paper plate or don’t eat at all.”
As the two of you argue, neither of you notice that the rest of the neighborhood has already seated itself on the picnic blankets, and are sharing sticky watermelon smiles as they wait for the fireworks to begin.
Books are like hamburgers. We can dress them up and devour them and go back for seconds, and we can all do it together, too. But whether we spend that Independence Day alone or at the picnic, the character of those hamburgers are not changed by the plates they are served upon. The character of the books we read are not changed by the manner we receive them, either. In fact, the format used says more about the reader than it does the story.
We assume that books can be destroyed by water or pen-markings or wear and tear, but I don’t believe that to be true. Books are independent of their condition. Even if you drop your hamburger into the dirt on accident it is still a hamburger. Except maybe you should get a new one because who knows where that dirt has been. Or just rinse it off in the water fountain. It is totally up to you.
When it comes to the matter of hamburgers and books, what I know is this: if you’re turning it down because of the plate it’s served upon, you aren’t really championing dinnerware dignity everywhere. You’re just missing out on a meal.