It’s a conversation I’ve heard many times. What a terrible thing it is to be losing the physical book, words printed on paper! What a terrible thing it is that people don’t write letters any more, words printed on paper!
And always I listen and think, “Yes, yes, of course. It’s always hard to lose the familiar. If we are, indeed, losing it, which hasn’t been proven yet.” And then I think, “But . . .”
Part of my “but” comes simply out of my determination not to think and act like the old lady I am. Just because something is new, just because it is different, surely doesn’t mean it is bad. Does it? I mean, oldsters like me have been condemning the young for their reckless ways since the beginning of time. And how much change has that prevented?
(Maybe more than we know, but ultimately change keeps happening.)
When it comes to books, certainly I love physical books the way other oldsters do, the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of the paper, the way my books look on the shelf. I would be sad if one of my publishers decided to bring out my next book only in an electronic format. Having a physical object to hold proves that this product of my mind now actually exists in the world.
And yet the vast majority of my own book purchases are electronic. Why?
Partly, I’ll admit, because electronic purchases are so easy. I can read a review or have a book referred by a friend and, zap! . . . it’s in my hands. Instant gratification! And I can even order it up as a sample before making a final decision about the purchase.
Partly because I’ve simply run out of space for more books on the shelf. Along with another advantage for having a library that doesn’t require space. I love being able to carry one small tablet or even my phone with me wherever I go and have whatever I’m reading or will soon want to read at hand.
Partly because electronic books are easy to read. I don’t have to have the correct light. My electronic books make their own light. And I can have whatever size type I prefer.
Partly because it’s so easy to highlight passages I want to remember and then to return to them.
Partly, I’ll admit, because that’s the way the world is going, and in this respect at least, I don’t want to be left behind.
And is any of that bad? Or are some of us just so committed to the way things used to be that we can’t let the good in just because it is a new and different good? Or even if we let it in, we feel obligated to complain about it.
I feel the same about the constant complaints I hear about people not writing “letters” any longer.
When my grandchildren want to communicate with me they usually text. When my friends and I are making plans, we rarely pick up a phone. We email. I wonder if there has ever been a time when people used writing more.
Yes, of course, texts and emails can be hurried and slipshod. But I’d guess in the days before the telephone when mail was delivered multiple times a day and penned notes were used for all kinds of daily communication, few of those notes were literary gems.
Most of my emails, I know, are as carefully thought through as any letter I ever wrote during my letter-writing days. Better for the fact that I can so easily go back and revise before I hit send.
So I can’t help but wonder if our nostalgia isn’t misplaced.
I used to know a number of writers who wrote their first drafts by hand. They said that in order to create they needed the feel of the pen, the slide of the hand against paper. And I’m sure they did.
It happens that I never needed that. I have some kind of motor deficiency that makes writing by hand difficult for me. In fact, if all the keyboards—typewriter or computer—were to disappear off the face of the earth, my career would be over.
Yet I understand that other people’s creativity might demand a different sensory experience than fingers tapping keys.
The interesting thing, though, is that for many years now I haven’t heard a fellow writer say that she writes her first draft by hand. Probably some still do, but I’m pretty sure their number is diminishing.
The world changes. Some changes bring loss. But even in the midst of loss, many bring great possibility.
Even when those losses touch our own most tender places.
Nothing wrong with lamenting the loss, but opening to possibilities is so much more fun.