Can Ebooks Ever Become Objects of Tradition?
I'm a grown adult. I have no children. And I haven't given out candy for trick-or-treating in five years. Still, I have no doubt that I am as excited for Halloween this year as most of the children in my neighborhood.
My fervor stems completely from my father. He loves creating traditions, and Halloween quickly supported more family rituals than nearly any other holiday in our household. There was the pumpkin carving, the decorations, the twenty-year-old costume makeup, and of course the books.
My father had collected about twenty Halloween children's books over the years, and they remained tucked away in our attic, only to be read during the month of October. My brothers and I cherished them and demanded that my father read to us each night to the point that I still have many of them memorized. I often recite the closing lines to Scary, Scary Halloween, a beautifully illustrated book that shows Halloween through the eyes of a cat and her kittens, "We stalk the shadows, dark, unseen. Goodbye 'til next year Halloween!" The line is a crucial part of our Halloween ritual, marking the end of our favorite holiday.
The more I think about how important these books were in my childhood, the more I'm floored by the immeasurable value of printed books. I don't know of any other products I own that are the focal point of a holiday (I haven't even touched on our Christmas books) or of any products that consume my attention for an entire month each year.
Books have a unique power, especially the beautifully illustrated works my father collected. And that kind of power is staying. How can a tablet recreate the stunning spreads I eyed excitedly as a child? How can an ereader recreate the pile of books my fathered hauled from the attic, which quickly became strewn across my brothers' floor? There is a value in the object itself, in the beauty of its pages.
This is not a blog post to glorify the smell and feel of books and condemn ebooks or the digital age. There is value there too, and perhaps one day a tablet can recreate or even improve upon the illustrations of my childhood. Plenty of tablets are already working to match the vibrant images of print, from retina displays to dual screen tablets that open like a book. Right now, though, it still feels like imitation.
Of course, there is the argument that ebooks are not books. They are interactive software that can do so much more than a book. They are limitless in their content, providing dictionaries, author commentary, supplementary essays, and video.
I think that this technology is amazing, especially when it comes to education. If every commentary on Dante's Inferno could be collected in one, accessible place or every study conducted on biodiversity in Northeast Pennsylvania, organized as it relates to the text being read, college and grad students everywhere would cheer.
Yet even as ebooks transcend traditional books, the value of my childhood books remains. Ebooks cannot erase that, and Google Analytics and Amazon cannot track it. Those books that work their way into ritual and tradition are impossible to measure in dollars, yet they can be the most valuable things a person owns.
My best gift last year at Christmas was a Macbook Air. I had intended to buy it on my own, but my parents purchased it anyway, saving me quite a bit of money. It was a great gift, and I loved it, but I don't think about the computer beyond the utility it gives me. The memory that sticks with me from last Christmas is curling up next to the fireplace, listening to my father read Torton's Christmas Secret, a 1951 edition that is no longer in print. He reads it every year.