I admit that I have a love hate relationship with modern technology. I have the dubious honor being old enough to remember the pre-computer era and young enough to have embraced it as it blossomed. When it comes to books, however, I am even more torn.
This will start off sounding like a tail you would hear from an 80-year-old. I grew up in a poor family on a dairy farm. We didn’t have much but one thing we had were shelves of books. We would pick up books at flea markets or by the box full at auctions when other poor family farmers lost out. Like most families, somewhere back in the 1970’s we had acquired a set of encyclopedias.
Encyclopedias are all but extinct now in the age of Wikipedia. Because of the changing nature of information, encyclopedias annually got updates. The way these updates arrived was in the form of an annual additional volume to the set, perfectly matching the rest in binding and color of course. The updated volume contained, as one might expect, all the new information that was discovered over the past year as well as corrections to the previous volumes. The last section in an update volume was shortened versions of classic literature.
I would be introduced to many classic stories from great writers through these encyclopedia updates.
As I grew to love reading, reading became more of an archaeological Indiana Jones style adventure to me. I would read a book from the modest bookcases of our house. If I enjoyed it I wanted more, so I would go to the library at school and find other works by that author. Then I would progress to wanting to know more about the author himself, so I would devour biographies. My need to know more would grow so I would look for memoirs by the author and if he was particularly interesting I would seek out a book of the letters he had sent to various people in his life. It was all very voyeuristic. I would look to find an analysis by academics of the notes the author would write in the margins of his original manuscript or the treasure trove of information about what he might have crossed out in an earlier revision. This layered approach got you into the mind of the writer, since what he kept in was probably not nearly as insightful as what he removed. I would get to a point where I would feel like I was with him as he had written it, as he squeezed every living experience he had into a fantastic written fictional portrayal of his life.
Today we live in a time of electronic documents, eBooks and 140-character sound bites. I too have been enjoying the convenience of a library on a 6-ounce device. The ability to highlight, take notes, and share quotes via twitter with a few simple key presses.
In all this convenience we have lost too much. No letters are written. No notes are made in the margins of manuscripts and previous drafts. No sections are crossed out that would reveal the mind of the author. We no longer have bookshelves full of books that are available for our children to discover the adventures of reading. While the stories are every bit as entertaining as they once where, they do not have the complicated layers they once had and are somewhat short of the life, the potential they could have achieved.
Sometimes I think we sacrifice too much for the sake of efficiency and convenience.