I don’t think I’ve ever had what one would call a normal perspective on books. At least not a perspective other book people would consider normal. When I think ‘book,’ my mind remains fixed more on the content than on the object. You can write a 300 page novel and print it out on notecards that you glue to a wall and I would call it a book after some consideration. A book has always been an idea to me first, a physical thing second. They just happen to share a word.
When I was a kid, my books were transient things. A lack of money combined with my mother’s ever-expanding hoard of stuff that tended to swallow things up meant that most of the books I read were either borrowed from the library or bought cheaply and quickly whisked away from my possession. I did manage to keep some to read over and over, but not all that many.
The first thing of any considerable length that I wrote was typed on a computer, and even though I knew that I would never print it or share it with anyone, everyday I sat down to work on it I would think, “I’m going to work on my book.” From then on, I believe the notion of a book as a written collection of knowledge or ideas became fixed in my mind. My book had no binding save for the floppy diskette I used to back it up, but it was still a book to me.
I spent the next many, many years happily writing and reading primarily from a computer screen. The stories I read and the knowledge I absorbed were public domain or posted for free by the authors. My computer was mine and mine alone, and the files could always be found again if they’d been online. Anything I wanted, if it was there, if it was free, could be mine. My time was limited, of course, due to issues of eyestrain and not (at the time) being able to carry the internet around. That didn’t matter. I could read Moby Dick and plenty of miscellaneous supplementary information on the setting and the author without pleading with my father to take me with him on the eighteen mile car ride into town. I could read stories and essays by people I’d never even heard of, young, brilliant, unique people who so greatly differed from the haggard and religiously-stringent Southern Mississippi people I knew in daily life that the knowledge that they existed shook something inside me and made me feel a tremulous hope for myself.
When I first heard of e-readers, I was opposed to the idea of owning one for one reason: It looked like a large lump of money spent so that you could then spend more money on what I suspected would be a staggeringly limited selection of books. I wasn’t concerned about e-books not feeling, or smelling, or tasting like ‘real’ books. I have no such visceral attachment to the physicality of them. My love is with knowledge and ideas, with words, with something much more free-floating and accessible than wood pulp and leatherette.
I could not have imagined the variety, the opportunities, that would open up to me after I received an e-reader. The library, as inconsistent as its content may be, feels limitless. Even if I counted only the books offered for free, there is more than I could ever read. Browsing the selection for the first time was stunning. I thought of The Matrix and its many, many guns.
On top of that, I can carry it around. It’s absurdly light and it holds a great amount of stuff. I can finally take my immense internet library with me. I am no longer limited by location or space, and I am far less limited by poverty.
The definition of ‘book’ changed a long time ago for me. All an e-reader does is make the acquisition of books easier.