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Kevin Criscione | Ill Literates

Is an e-book a real book?

Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 10, 2014 06:02

In the 21st century, some things have changed and others haven’t. Folks may still be reading Moby Dick, but is reading the classic 1851 whale tale any different on the smooth yet phony inky-looking surface of a Kindle? 

Today’s question: whether or not reading something on an e-Reader, Kindle or other device that would have been considered futuristic two decades ago is profoundly different in any way. As usual, I have a frothy batch of opinions to serve up about this, ready for your dutiful ingestion. 

The naysayers of the e-book debate argue that reading a book in traditional hardcover or paperback form is a singular experience diluted by electronic means of downloading and reading. On the other hand, the yea-sayers claim that e-book and e-readers make all sorts of literature more accessible and transportable, removing enormous barriers to consumption, with the only downside being that certain stuck-up naysayers will get nostalgic over paper-based books.

I completely get that there is a physical and aesthetic quality to a traditional paper book that can’t be replaced. However, it is a luxury that isn’t really needed by most students and fans of literature. Actual books are cool, but I believe the fixation that certain writers and literature fanatics have about traditional hardcovers and paperbacks stems from a privileged understanding of what it means to be literary (cough, cough, Jonathan Franzen — he is one of my favorite authors, but seriously, he often engages in the essay equivalent of yelling at kids to get off his lawn). On an unrelated note, I feel so Tufts-y for having used the word privileged in my column!

The traditional notion that physical presence inscribing a kind of meaning to something, that being able to hold a book or a film reel in your hands makes it more valuable and special in an inarticulable way has run headfirst into the brick wall of digital culture. We can download so much so frequently that the idea of physical permanence holds no value. I don’t really feel one way or the other about this; I just think that it is a reality of our times that we all ought to accept. 

Perhaps, though, something has been gained in this lack of value placed on the physical. Convenience, for sure. Greater accessibility to what were formerly obscure works of literature as well. Benefits for American education systems? We’ll have to see. 

Besides, doesn’t arguing that the meaning of a piece of literature depends on the medium through which it is conveyed totally negate one of the fundamental wonders of literature (as opposed to other media of storytelling), that is, that literature expresses so much using only written language and nothing else (as opposed to the myriad components of film/drama/other forms of narrative)? 

That last sentence was pretty convoluted, but my overall point, cheesy as it is, is this: I don’t think the manner in which we transcribe and read works of literature should affect its meaning as long as the same passion remains in the writing and reading of it. Essentially, this whole column is a long-winded way of saying that we should go ahead and read on Kindles if it makes sense, even if paper books are pretty cool, too. e-Readers can be just as sexy as the most elegant hardcover novels, as long as the story is sublime. 

Book of the week: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, for effectively predicting the invention of the laptop computer and the benefits it would have for education and entertainment. Also, for being a book I have read without even really considering seeing the recent film version.

Kevin Criscione is a junior majoring in English. He can be reached at Kevin.Criscione@tufts.edu

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