Making an Eternal Case for the Printed Word

The printed word, such as a hard copy book, is not a gem that is appreciated by all. My fellow book-lovers, you will understand when I talk about the absolute euphoria I feel when I open a new shipment from Chapters and Indigo to find beautiful hard copies of some of my favourite titles.

Now, commercial giants, and those looking to create new and inventive technology have, over the last decade or so, tried to reinvent the way we read. And, while I have no real dual to enact with the Kobo or the Kindle or the other what-have-yous out there, I feel it is completely necessary that I champion the printed word as the best invention ever. Yes, I will concede that e-books are able to make accessible reading in ways we could not have imagined before, such as what do I do when the lights go out and it’s dark and I still want to read? Cue headlines: Order is restored with My New Kobo Amidst a Frenzy of No Electricity! Or, Kindle Solves Space Issues: Every Title I Ever Wanted in One Compact Device! Now, while these reasons are all great to catapult stories into the 21st century, and let’s not forget, make millions of dollars, there is something to be said about a plain and simple paperback or hardcover that you house on a shelf. Never mind the intoxicating smell of a brand new book, or, for those of us more sentimental readers, the concreteness of the page to flip back and forth, the option to pen down your thoughts and ideas in the margins for someone else to find a few years from whence you last held the book. Never mind all of these. Imagine now if you will, a society where all is destroyed. Where human beings remain, but all the inventions and luxuries that make our lives easier are demolished because of war or natural disasters. Now, imagine that the only thing left behind is a large edifice stocked with some of the world’s best books. Such is a world created by Jeanne DuPrau in her City of Ember Series. Jeanne skillfully brings front and centre the problem of a world with no electricity or technological invention with which to learn or communicate. Instead, our merry band of characters finds a way to pull themselves out of a slump of human intellectual degradation by, in various ways, using the printed word. Be it letters passed between people, or journals left behind for the new blood to read, or just books about space and electricity, the printed word is an invention that helps to bring back a generation groping in the dark for evolution.

In his book, It’s a Book, Lane Smith illustrates with candour and cheekiness, the merits of a book. He juxtaposes the characteristics of a book with the mobile devices of our current lives, and through it, showcases the simple, yet everlasting quality of the printed word. Maybe Smith happened upon this idea in an attempt to leave behind a memoir of the printed word should it ever fall into an abyss of non-existence, but I don’t think such will ever be the case. Not merely because as human beings we are a sentimental lot, but because there is sheer practicality inherent in prolonging the lineage of hard copy books everywhere. Hard copy books are a way for generations to communicate with each other. They are a way to reach beyond the dead and continue with the evolution of our species in the absence of the inventors of scientific, literary and other advancements. They are a way to learn new things to further our own minds and a means of finding connections to each other regardless of barriers in race, intelligence, creed, or gender. They are doors to new worlds that we may never visit. They are sanity-keepers for those of us who enjoy unwinding with a good book. They are worlds to escape to when our lives get messy and too hard to live.

Working in the school system, I have seen and heard of initiatives to move toward a more Learning Commons way of education. And while marrying technology with books is great, some administrators have the wrong idea when they champion only laptops and iPads over books on shelves. Not all students have access to laptops and iPads beyond the school grounds, but every child can, and should, have access to a book from the school or public library.

The printed word will never go out of style, and so pushing toward a paperless world where we undervalue the contribution of the hard copy book is not the wisest course of action. Technology will advance, and maybe someday be completely obliterated because of a man-made or natural calamity. Maybe a universal blackout will wipe out all means for us to communicate with each other via our mobile devices. Either way, the printed word, hard copy books will remain permanent means of education and communication and wonder.


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