Owning and Possessing in a Digital World

We live in curious and confusing times, as have pretty much all our ancestors throughout all of recorded history. Some lines that once seemed clear are always starting to blur, and that is always going to make us uncomfortable to some extent, although we all have varying degrees of tolerance for such unease, especially when with it come excitement and the promise of new and better (?) things just ahead.

My friend (and cousin-in-law) Dave Schwartz asked a very interesting question on his blog yesterday morning: what does it mean to own a book? He describes his experience of recently purchasing physical copies of three books he already owned in e-book form, and wonders what that says about him, and in a broader sense what that says about digital vs. physical media.

Personally, digital property still feels ephemeral to me. While I love the fact that I can own whole seasons of my favorite TV shows (for example) without having thick cases devouring inch after inch of my precious bookshelf space, at the same time, I can’t see them, I can’t hold them, I can’t really know that I have them: ultimately I have to believe in them. It becomes almost a matter of faith, and trust as well: faith in an unseen world of zeros and ones that somehow coalesce consistently into the sights and sounds and words that we have paid for, and trust that a glitch, a hiccup, or dust mote is not going to wipe out all that unseen digital property in the blink of an eye.

And that leap of faith trust and in the reliability of digital property is a hard one to make, and far harder (for many people) when it comes to books than to music and visual entertainments. Why? Because our relationship to books is inherently a more physical one, at least it always has been since people started reading to themselves back in late antiquity. (Augustine comments in Book VI of Confessions how bizarre it was that his mentor Ambrose would sit by himself and read silently, rather than aloud as everyone else did: “When he read his eyes would travel across the pages and his mind would explore the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.” Of course, reading aloud helped back when there were no spaces between words.) We carry books with us, we curl up with them, we smash creeping things with them, we amass long shelves full of them, we press treasured mementos in them. They are for many of us touchstones milestones along life’s journey, sometimes even monuments to the achievement of tackling and conquering a particularly daunting text.

And now that is changing. The presentation of texts to be read is migrating to ever-improving digital devices that allow us to carry copious amounts of reading material about with us in our purses and man-bags. I cannot see this as a bad thing, but at a deep level it is still a difficult development to adjust to. It is one thing to embrace the ease and convenience this shift offers, but it is another to compensate for the unconscious expectations of what it means to hold a book, to own a book, to possess a book. We’ll get used to it in time: we’re good at that.

2 thoughts on “Owning and Possessing in a Digital World

  1. Here’s something I’ve wondered about ebooks: how do you cite them in academic papers?

    If I have a second edition of Book X, I can cite the edition of the book, author, page #, etc. Right? But what if the book I’m citing is an ebook? How would I use the page number? What if I increase the font size to ease the strain on my eyes, then the passage I want to site might be on page 59 or page 111. Who knows?

    Would my footnote be, “Twain, Huck Finn, Page 111 with 24-point type?”

  2. That’s a really good question. I’ve never yet used any kind of E-reader, so that would not have occurred to me as a question ask, but that is huge. In my discipline we are just teetering on the brink of a major shift to using electronic texts a LOT more, and how that impacts the rituals and mechanics of writing from research is a very important consideration.

    Just blue-skying here, but I wonder is it would be possible/practical for ebooks, especially if they are more overtly academic, to have some sort of meta tagging built in that would, regardless of changes to viewing size, remember the original pagination for purposes of quote citations. Never a shortage of details to work out, is there?

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