Paper or Plastic (Books)?

E-reader or book? That’s the question that’s becoming ever more pertinent as the e-reader market develops. And now, with the announced bankruptcy of the Borders bookstore chain, it seems that we are coming closer to an answer.

Borders is in such a rut that the New York Stock Exchange recently contacted the bookstore chain with a de-listing warning because Borders has not traded any stock over $1 for 30 consecutive days. At last reporting, Borders’ stock sat at just 26 cents. The chain is planning to close 200 of its 674 stores; that’s almost a third of its total business. It also plans to cut thousands of jobs.

The most likely and inevitable reality is that sometime this century, books will cease to be published on paper and will instead be distributed electronically. In all likelihood, walking into a Barnes and Noble past the display stands to find that new Stephen King or John Grisham novel and sitting down for a good read between the bookshelves is an experience that is quickly becoming endangered.

I have to admit I’m impressed by the environmental benefits that come with moving to e-readers. No pages means no paper means no need to cut down trees. And that’s great. It really is. I can’t argue that the screen displays of e-readers look uncannily real but, if you ask me, it’s kind of spooky. Seriously, I just can’t tell what it’s supposed to look like. There’s just something about the physicality of a book that an e-reader can’t bring to the table: the scent of the paper, the sound of flipping pages or its simple weight.

And yet, people always seem to come up with a loophole in these situations. We’ve been shackled by a dependence on oil to fuel our cars for a century, a dependence that has already wreaked havoc on our environment and our economy and has played a huge part in foreign policy and international relations. But now we have people looking at trying to make cars run on electricity, water, hydrogen, ethanol and even seaweed. Maybe this means that e-readers are just the next reasonable paradigm shift.

It also probably means that sometime in the near future, when trees become an endangered resource (like oil), people will start researching paper alternatives. Then we can have our books back. After all, it’s not the paper that gives a book its personality. It’s really just the fact that we can hold the words in our hands – and not in the way an e-reader presents the words of a book to you, as bits of data on some kind of freaky-deaky LCD display. With books, the letters are physically imprinted on them. They’re actually there. Sort of like that Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin picks up his book and the letters all slide off the pages.

Of course, the magic of the human condition is the ability to adapt. Your beachside house collapses and plummets down the side of the cliff: it’s painful, it sucks, but you get over it and you rebuild. Similarly, books become replaced by computer screens: you lose that magic, but eventually you get used to the new situation. And maybe that’s how it should be. Considering the direction our environment is heading in, it might be a sign that books on paper should become something of a luxury. You use oil for 100 years, eventually it becomes time to stop using oil before you turn the planet into a big ball of smog. We’ve been using trees for much longer than that, so maybe it’s time for some sacrifices.

In the end, we can’t expect the things we love to remain the same forever. Time goes on, things change. The trick is to be able to adjust to that change and learn to appreciate it for its own unique qualities.

AE Anteater is a fifth-year English major. He can be reached at emailremoved@uci.edu.