Books I’m Reading

Make that “Kindle single” I’m reading. At 369 locations, Andrew Losowsky’s Reading in Four Dimensions is (feels?) shorter than most articles in The Atlantic Monthly. Towards the end of this quick read, Lowsowsky comments on the permanence of printed materials

“As a byproduct of the durability of paper, and a result of their cultural status, we expect a book to be relatively permanent. Its longevity is a part of its appeal.”

Having spent the last two months working in a library preservation lab, I’ve been drummed to think of paper as far from permanent as the Wile E. Coyote is to getting the Road Runner. Paper has lots to ail it: acidity, brittleness, heat, light, humidity, mold, insect . .  . etc., and this is all before any use is considered. The problem with paper, so I’ve been told, was somewhat alleviated starting in the late 1960s-1970s when publishers were persuaded to start using better-quality paper, but since the late 1990s, more publishers have gone back to printing on acidic paper even for their hardcover books. The problem, unlike our beloved Governator‘s film career, is thus making a come back.

(Acidic paper, in case you wonder, can be identified through their symptomatic yellowing of the pages (or a pH pen). Left untreated, acidic paper will become brittle; the paper will stiffen and eventually crumble with a casual turning of the page. Even worse, acidity can migrate from book to book. Juxtaposing a book that has already gone through a lot of the decay caused by acid against a new, but printed on acidid paper book will accelerate the acid decay in the new book. All that information just in case you don’t have enough in your day to worry about already.)

To be fair to Andrew Losowsky, he did not say that paper is permanent, only that it is “relatively permanent”. He was, of course, comparing printed books to ebooks, or more generally to materials that exist in electronic format. I don’t think Mr. Losowsky is wrong; I just want to note that about the only time people extol the durability of paper is in connection to  its more ephemeral e-counterpart.  Moreover, neither that, nor the supposed virtue of books being a very simple, basic technology (need only eyes and eyes to read a physical book), sounds to me like ringing endorsement of the print. After all, walking is a very simple, basic technology, but most of us can appreciate the combustion engine. At the least, the critiques of products like e-readers and ebooks  sound as much like a call to pour more resources into improving these products as they do for embracing their paper cousins.

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