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.


  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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