Friday, April 8, 2011

The Way We Used to Read Books

Anyone over the age of forty has probably found themselves having a discussion with someone under the age of twenty describing how we used to make phone calls. The story goes something like this:

“When I was a child, the only phones we had were connected by a cord to the telephone line in a wall. You know those telephone poles you see outside? Conversations travelled across those wires from one phone to the next. My grandmother even had a little telephone table that she sat at while she made her phone calls.

“The telephone itself had a rotary dial, and later we had push button dialing. But we couldn’t walk around the house with the phone – the length of the telephone cord limited us. In the 1980’s cordless phones became popular, but the reception was poor, and you couldn’t travel too far from the base…”

I find myself imagining the conversations we will be having within the next couple of decades about how we used to read books. The story will go something like this:

“When I was a child a book was something that was printed on paper. It had a cover and hundreds of pages. We kept the books we owned on a large wooden bookshelf in the living room – each book taking up about an inch of space.

“When we wanted to borrow books we went to the library – that was a place where all the books were available to the public, for free. We could borrow them for two weeks and then we had to return them. Sometimes we had to wait for the book we wanted to read to become available.

“We could buy books at a bookstore. Yes, I do mean amazon.com, but I’m really referring to stores like you find at the mall or shopping plaza. Bookstores were places where you could go to browse the newest books and purchase your own copy to read, lend to a friend, or give as a gift. At some of these bookstores you could have a cup of coffee while checking out the latest books.

“If you were lucky enough to meet the author you could even have a book signed – those books were treasures.

“We turned pages with our fingers, being careful not to bend them as we did so. The idea of swiping a screen to turn a page was inconceivable. The only screens we had were on our TVs, and later our computers. But we didn’t touch the screens – that would leave annoying fingerprints that had to be cleaned…”

Is this what we’ll be saying in the future? I predict that we’ll be having these conversations within the next ten years. What do you think?

17 comments:

Maurice Frank said...

The kids you're talking to about phones and printed books will tell their kids about devices not yet invented but obsolete by the time that conversation happens.

Sure we do lose many valuable experiences such as books signed by authors. But we also gain benefits we could not even imagine until they happened.

Liz Fichera said...

Oh, absolutely! But the e-reader is one invention that I'm crazy about. Love mine for all sorts of reasons.

Had to laugh at the rotary phone story though. Yes, I remember when we had one and a family only had one phone in their house. Rotary phones and record players are stories that fascinate my niece and nephew. Okay, I feel old. Thank you. ;-)

Colette said...

Oh record players -- forgot about those already! I was thinking about cassette tapes and VCRs...

Maurice and Liz - agree that technology provides great benefits, and many yet to be realized!

Carol Kilgore said...

I think fiction will be the first to move completely to ebooks with POD available for those who refuse to adapt.

Dave E said...

Batteries don't go flat on a book though!

Colette said...

Carol, I think you're right.

Dave E, true, but my batteries on my kindle last so long I don't even need to bring my charger -- even if I'm gone for a week.

Anon_e_mouse said...

Rotary phones... I never have been able to successfully explain to my children (let alone my grandchildren) what a party line was... they have no concept of it. But when I was small my parents had a four-party line, each of us with our own ring. And, of course, one of the parties was a "snoop" who always listened in, or so my mother said. Eventually they made private lines available, and we got one; my grandfather (a retired Bell System installer) hooked up an extension in the basement for us using an old candlestick phone so we could answer the phone down there without having to run upstairs.

When my wife and I moved out of Raleigh to rural Franklin County in 1982 we didn't have "direct dial" outside of our local telephone exchange and a couple of others for the first few months; the central office was in the middle of an upgrade at the time, so we were able to get touch-tone service. Carolina Telephone was wonderful. Just as credit card companies will call and check if they see a dramatic change in your usage pattern, they called us when they saw a huge spike in our long distance calling (50+ calls in two days, including a half-dozen calls to Spain and Canada, compared to our usual two calls per month); when we confirmed that yes, the calls were legit, announcing the birth of our younger daughter, they gave us a huge credit and sent flowers and a pink Princess phone. Somehow I can't imagine any phone company doing that nowadays.

Dave E said...

It'll be interesting to see which lasts longer (although I won't be around to see the result). Books might have a life span of a few hundred years if looked after, but what about digital media.
After a disaster, I can see and touch a book that I am saving. I can see what it is and it's value. But digital media? If's off on a server farm somewhere. How would I know if the thing (storage device of some sort) had any additional value because of it's contents.
(Some) people will chase after a first edition of a book, but somehow I cannot see someone lusting after some media (e.g. a flash drive or a CD) with a copy of a book on it. It just does not seem to convey the same sense of importance to me.
Who know, maybe in a few hundred years a first edition Colette on a flash drive will be worth as much as a first edition Chaucer is today!

Colette said...

Anon-e-Mouse - thanks for sharing your story about party lines. Yes, it's a concept not easily understood in today's world of conference calls!

Dave E - I'm looking forward to the day when there is a first edition Colette! Seriously, I find it hard to think of a world where we no longer keep "special" books on a shelf. I agree with Carol though -- that fiction will be the first to go all digital. It's more "consumable" (i.e. read it once and done) than say reference books.

Gus Gaynor said...

Hi: theer's only one problem. How can I look at two or more pages simultaneously as I can with a book. Also, in regards to the old hard wired telephone, I could undestand what people were saying minus a lot of static and dead spots. I'm in favor of technology but we're sacrificing quality. Let's fix the quality.

Gus Gaynor

Colette said...

Gus -- true, but with e-books you will be able to hyperlink, which can't be done with hardcopy books.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Just think: One day, someone will be writing a historical novel that features ebooks and podcasts. They will be using newer devices to do their historical research so that they can faithfully render the ebook experience. :-)

Colette said...

Wow Elizabeth, you're waaaay ahead of me. But yes, while I can't imagine what that technology will be, I imagine that you are right!

Smitha said...

Nothing can beat the smell of an old book!! The memories they bring back...i still have some books from school stacked up at home, and everytime i visit my parents i open them up n a whiff is all it takes to bring a smile :)

Technology is great but some things should be left alone.

One Womans Eye said...

This one upsets me. I still like the smell of books. I still prefer to read the paper with newsprint covering my hands. I don't think printed books will disappear completely, but I do think they will be less dominant.

I liken it all to what they said about AM radio when FM started. That it would disappear. But it hasn't. It survives with adjustments.Hopefully the same will be true of printed books.

Colette said...

Perhaps we should all start collecting as many "real" books as we can. Maybe our collections will be worth something some day!

Anon_e_mouse said...

We've been collecting for years... between my wife and I we catalog somewhere over 3500 volumes. And our four children (all adults, although one still lives at home) have similar collections.