eBooks: What Would Simone de Beauvoir Say?

[first posted by Greg on 3/18/2011]

Those of us who maintain a critical distance from the miracle that is supposed to be the eBook are often accused of being nostalgic romantics or Luddites for our attachment to the printed form, even if we readily accept that that eBooks will have an important subsidiary role to play in the future world of books and reading. By this reckoning, it would also appear that the whole of Europe is also Luddite, as they too seem to be resisting the hysteria that the American media is whipping up regarding eBooks. It was rather interesting for me, then, to have come across the following essay written by Simone de Beauvoir in 1947 comparing the United States and Europe, in which she first expresses her admiration for the energy and industry of the Americans, manifested by all of the bridges, radio towers, and skyscrapers being built in the USA at the time, but then states that  “even among the American intellectuals there is a very definite tendency to confuse the opaque fullness of the object with real human riches. The intellectuals, too, seem to interest themselves exclusively in the result, rather than in the movement of the spirit which engendered it … [The American] does not hope, like the artisan of other times, to confer an eternal value on the object he fashions; he is not concerned with quality, for such a concern implies not the measurement of time but the confident surrender of it; the American wants only to “get on” with his work so that the result be not out of date before completion.” [Philosophical Writings, U of I Press, Urbana,2004, pp. 310-11]

Though de Beauvoir wrote this before Kindles, Nooks, et al. were even a science fiction concept, her analysis would seem to apply to much of the thinking that the more vocal advocates of eBooks manifest. Especially that — in the rush to embrace the seeming transcendence of this new, sexy technology — there is a distinct lack of consideration of the importance that the physical nature of print books has had, and continues to have, on the building up and maintenance of a reading culture; this is especially evident in the role played by book stores, used book stores and, in their current form, libraries. If eBooks do succeed in the way that its proponents often state (and as Amazon, the maker of Kindles, actually plots to do), then these institutions would likely be swept away. We then must ask ourselves whether book culture – both for writers and readers – will be better off if we too are wholly cast into that amorphous digital abyss and have to compete with all the distractions that the digital world offers (video games, music, films, tweets, Facebook, etc.). And, in line with what de Beauvoir was writing, we must ask ourselves whether this desire not to be “out of date before completion” will cost us the possibility of the printed word being,  with its efficient, analog technology (the printed book and bookstore) an oasis from the great mass of digital and electronic media that increasingly defines our living environment and all of the impatient clicking, clicking, clicking that we must engage in to navigate it.

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