Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?
For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.
Some photographs just speak for themselves. This is one of those. After seeing a group of people perusing photo books for sale at at the 2013 PDN Expo in NYC, I decided to take a photo with my Ricoh GR just to make up for what otherwise was a slow photography day. What I was not expecting was for the woman in the photo to suddenly turn the book page and be shocked by whatever it was she had just seen. I could’t quite make out what exactly she was looking at, but it had obviously caused quite an impression on her. Sometimes, that’s just how it happens. Just when you are about to press that shutter, someone within the frame of view will do something that will produce a much more interesting photograph. That’s what happened on this day, and it obviously transformed what was just an ordinary scene into one not so ordinary. That worked for me.
The National Book Festival put together by the great folks from the Smithsonian Institution took over the National Mall this past week. As always, this well-attended festival is kind of a national reminder of the value of books and the great benefits that come from reading. I will admit, though, that in the era of Tweeter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook, book reading as a national activity is not what it used to be. Most of us can be considered “occasional” book readers at best, even when technologies like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made acquiring and reading book about as easy as it can be humanly made.
But having recently returned from Paris, something very interesting caught my attention during this book festival. This was the contrast between the French and the American attitudes to book reading. The French as a whole are considered some of the most prolific book readers in the world, and when I say books, I mean the hardbound, physical, nice-smelling books we grew up with a generation ago in America. Walking the streets of Paris, book readers were everywhere holding books of all sizes while sitting at outdoor cafes or at the local park benches. No doubt their “bookworms” reputation is well deserved. But what I did not see in Paris were electronic book readers. Not one. Nada. Zip. In contrast, if you removed the bare-bones Barnes & Noble tent from the National Book Festival, there wasn’t a physical book pile to be seen anywhere (at least that I could find while walking around). And here is where the contrast with France appeared most evident: in the reality that digital distribution and consumption of books in America is rapidly overtaking the tired, brick-and-mortar sales model that appears to be alive and well in France. Old world vs. new world? Not sure, but while this distinction doesn’t mean that Americans are reading any less lately, it surely seems to point to the fact that most of us are not going to be flipping pages a-la-France these days. For most of us today, a walk to the local bookstore these days involves logging in to a digital book seller online and never hearing the friendly “great book” comment from the bookstore employee. Maybe this sort of human interaction is not needed these days, or maybe online reviews are a good-enough substitute for the old bespectacled clerk. Who knows. All I know is that if they could replicate that great book smell that hits you the first time you open a brand-new book, then that would be something. Ahaaaa! Well, in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.