Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of E-books and E-mail

This morning I happened upon a tweet from Chris Kubica, an author and FileMaker Pro app developer:

How come everyone isn't pining the demise of mail and the death of the postal service like they are for paper books?

I had immediate flashbacks to my youth and young adulthood, when I was the best little letter writer there ever was. I corresponded faithfully and laboriously with all manner of relatives, pen-pals, teachers, school chums, general acquaintances, and (the best) boyfriends. It was nothing to fill 17 pages of notebook paper with lively discourse, all ground out the hard way: with a pen or pencil. Then I would stamp it, post it, and sit back and wait a week for a response. Seriously.

Since the early 1990s, e-mail has gradually been supplanting my handwritten communication. Think of all the positives: Immediate gratification, less time spent writing, added legibility, and a writer's callous that has all but disappeared (to be replaced by a "mouse shoulder," though). So I was compelled to respond to Chris' tweet thusly:

Because getting letters faster trumps the intimacy of pen-and-paper correspondence.

And it's true. The very heart of writing letters remains the same regardless of the medium. And being able to correspond in real time enhances the experience and the connection between the writer and the reader, I believe.

Chris responded:

But u cn get books on a Kindle/Nook in 60 seconds or less. Even if ur nude sitting on the toilet. Still paper books better?

He must have thought he had a real Luddite on his hands. I responded:

Yes, for now--until we get used to the idea. I'm never in as much of a hurry to buy a book as I am to hear from a loved one.

And I'm not. I'm used to there being a lag between the time I decide to buy a book and the time I get that book in my hands. I'm used to driving to the store or waiting a few days for Amazon to put it on my doorstep.

Chris responded again:

So you aren't sad to see US Mail go. Would you be sad to see paper books disappear, replaced by ebooks?

Here is where I realized that paper books are just further behind on the extinction continuum than letters. I thought of my old boxes of sweet letters with their postmarks, colorful stamps, and tear stains. I don't want to let go of them--or the shelves and shelves of paper books lining the walls of my "library." All of this paper is my ephemeral link to the past. And I like the past. So I clarified my position:

Actually, I am sad about both. But I realize that's overly sentimental, so why stand in the way of progress?

So this is my position: Eventually I will get used to e-books. But because books aren't as urgent as letters, it's just going to take longer for the practical to overcome the sentimental.

Chris said there would always be paper popup books. True dat.


Laurence Shatkin said...

I think people will get used to the idea of book buying as an instant-gratification event, as we have with e-mail. This may actually boost book sales by allowing impulse buys. On the other hand, the kind of book that gets bought as an impulse buy is likely to be different from the book bought after cool consideration. Think of the little dollar books on sale at the checkout counter, about diets and horoscopes. We may have to think more in terms of books like "Great Jobs in the President's Stimulus Plan."

Steph Mineart said...

I'm still not sold on screen reading for lengthy pieces of writing, though.

Heather said...

My tech-loving teenage daughter just mailed a stack of letters to her friends today because "it's fun to get letters." Although after Skyping, texting, and instant messaging with her friends all evening, I don't know what she could possibly have left to say!

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