Back in September, when I wrote my personal treatise against the Kindle, one of the issues I didn’t delve into, due to a lack of data (and lack of desire, on my part, to research and unearth respectable data) was the question of whether E-books are a more responsible choice, environmentally speaking, than paper books.
Now the environmentally-friendly stamp is one that anyone selling anything right now is anxious to use to their own advantage, and even those who aren’t really selling anything (but who are still, I would argue, trying to sell their own perspective, their own beliefs in who should be praised, and who condemned, and why) are not likely to present anything close to an unbiased, two-or-more sided view of the most important facts at hand.
Most statistics offered by companies about their products or environmental organizations about the issues most relevant to their mission are so consciously and specifically framed (or re-framed) that it’s difficult to get a clear sense of how all these separate, accumulated facts add up to one big, coherent (and, ideally, honest) picture of what’s really going on with books, and trees, and electronic readers, etc. My few attempts at research turned out results that were frustratingly unrelated to one another, and I eventually, and ingloriously, desisted.
A braver soul than me, who writes the blog Tales from the Reading Room, wrote an entry on exactly this issue, and I really appreciated reading it, and thought I’d link to it here, for anyone who’s interested in learning a bit more about the more-established-but-changing relationship between books and the environment and the rapidly evolving relationship between E-books and the same. The article includes links to all the sites the author used to gather his data, so you can check statistics out for yourself if you so choose.
The entry is titled “Books, Ebooks and the Environment,” and one of my favorite points brought up within the post is that E-books, like most other products marketed today, especially technological ones, will be continually improved upon and updated; as time goes by, its equipment will wear out, cease to work properly, and perhaps eventually cease to work at all, requiring its users to purchase new versions of the same product within a few years of the initial purchase. This is a reminder that the E-book doesn’t really exist on its own: it exists in relation to the rest of the technological world, to Wi-Fi connections and 3G networks etc., and as these things inevitably grow and change, the Ebook will have to change as well.
Paper books, however, don’t require software updates or internet connections, and they can last for a remarkably long time (though I think there’s a big quality and longevity gap between sturdily-produced books and the modern, run-of-the-mill, mass-produced paperback). When I wrote about the Kindle, I wrote about how I appreciate the paper book in part because of its physical presence and place in the history reading, and to me, part of the history of reading involves the recent history of giving and inheritance. I have books that belonged to my grandparents, and these books mean a lot to me not because the words in them that are the same as those my grandparents read nearly three-quarters of a century ago, but because they too held the very same book that I’m holding now. They turned its pages with their own fingers, and wrote their names inside the front covers, and below the names they inscribed dates which feel remarkably long ago, and yet the physical fact of the book makes me feel closer to that time than almost anything else not involving a time machine could.
The Kindle might be a good gift (it’s certainly a popular one), but it can’t be a gift that contains this kind of history, at least not until the E-book itself is considered an artifact, an antique, a symbol of a era long past.
The paper book, however, doesn’t need to be an artifact to be a gift that carries an important, and a personal, history with it. I know whenever I give someone a book, it’s for a reason: not just to give them a book, but to give them this book. I’m not sure what’d I’d do if someone gave me an E-Book. Recycle it, maybe. Or re-gift it.
Re-something it, at any rate. That’d be the environmentally friendly thing to do, right?