I was at a poetry reading at the library a while back and one of the poets had a poem about how lost in cyberspace everyone is and the implication was that he was seeing the end of print culture and the book. Never mind that there was not an empty seat in the house to hear a poetry reading on a Thursday night! But there we have it – technology is phasing out the book. But it is just changing media. We don’t need hand copied books either. More and more books are being written electronically and read on electronic devices. This isn’t news. What is funny is to watch people with one foot in the old paradigm trying to make sense of the new. This includes myself. I have always thought of books as something that I had to own. They are objects to be held and even if they are not held in my hand, they must be contained in something that I own! I had a funny thing happen the other day. I was downloading an ebook onto my iPad and I got an error message that said my iPad was full. I was incredulous. How could this happen? I have 16 gigabytes of space! I went through Kindle and iBook to take a look at what happened. I downloaded a lot of books. My electronic book shelves had swelled to the autodidactic, polymathic, bibliomaniacal proportions that my home bookshelves used to have. I got onto a vintage, historic cookbook jag and that cost me some room. I have the Washington DC Cookbook from the turn of the century which allowed me to send my actual hard copy to my Best Man, Steve Boutchyard, who is currently in culinary school. But I also have a copy of Beeton’s and numerous others. I had the complete works of Poe; a raft of Elizabethan playwrights that are not Shakespeare as well as the complete works of the Bard; numerous volumes of Balzac; a complete library of philosophical works; everything related to Art History that is free in iTunes and Google Books that is downloadable and the list goes on. And so here I am, just like I was in the 80s, before I had a computer, with book shelf issues. I have noticed an uptick in people talking about classic literature and I think it is because so much of it is freely available in accessible formats via places like Gutenberg.org. I also have a couple of ebooks that I actually bought that I am reading with no small amount of irony: I am reading an electronic book about a physical archive where the author is able to convey in deeply poetic detail what it is like to work with the physical texts that go back hundreds of years in the Paris police archives.
I still own a lot of physical books, but not nearly as much as I used to since the dawn of the internet. I love a good physical copy of a book as much as anyone: there are some books that I have that are gorgeous old books with fine bindings, thick paper that has the wire ridges where the paper dried on a screen, and beautiful fonts that press deeply into the paper. They have a texture and presence that you can’t get from an etext. That said, I was looking for a book on Ausonius on line today and I found what I was looking for on Amazon and the physical book was going for $540. And you can bet they are not being as thoughtful about design and fonts as they once were. Needless to day, the electronic version of an equivalent text from Google Books at no cost will suffice.
In the late 90s, I thought that there would be no limit to the amount of books I could put on a computer. So how I could eat up 16 gigs is just incredible; a bit is the smallest unit – a 1 or a 0, on or off, a byte is 8 bits which make a single character, 10 to 15 bytes go into a sentence, and a megabyte is 1,048,576 bytes, and a gigabyte is a 1000 megabytes. And I had 16 of those! If you are using an Apple or Android product, you probably already know about the iBook and Google Book apps, but there are other sources of free books. If you want to fill up your iPad or eReader quickly with free books I would suggest spending a rainy afternoon browsing:
- The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania
- The Internet Archive’s Digital Books Collections
- Forgotten Books
- The Sacred Text Archive
- World Digital Library
- Libravox – free audio books
On top of all of that, there are the numerous texbooks that are licensed with the “Creative Commons” license that you can download through various repositories like the Open Textbook Library and College Open Textbooks. There, I just exploded your iPad!