David Byrne on the beauty of books

“I like eBooks. I like physical books, too. It’s sad to watch bookstores disappear as more and more folks buy their books online or read eBooks and rarely visit a bookstore. What will be lost and what have we gained in this process?”

~David Byrne, November 2012

Full disclosure: I LOVE David Byrne. He could recite a pizza menu while blowing bubbles and standing on his head (he may have already done that!), and I would get chills up and down my spine.

Byrne is a visionary artist, academic, writer, photographer, singer and musician (of Talking Heads fame). Importantly, he is also very likeable.

So, I couldn’t wait to talk about his recently released book “How Music Works“. I can’t comment on the subject matter, as I haven’t read it yet, but it is getting great reviews.

What I can talk about–and what Byrne is keen on talking about–is the format of the book:  It’s available in all formats — paper, eBook, enhanced eBook (embedded with audio snippets), and audio.

I am trying (but failing) to embrace eBooks, so my first reaction was: A music book by David Byrne might be one of those books that works better in digital format.

And yet, Byrne, who is definitely not a luddite after spending forty-years experimenting with music and technology, seems to be partial to the paper version. In his email newsletter he wrote:

“The physical book is truly a lovely object—the McSweeney’s folks are known for this—so if you like to touch things, this is your best option. It’s large and slightly squishy.”

Last week, again via email, he announced the launch of his enhanced eBook, but mainly waxed poetic about paper books:

Books, when well made and beautifully designed, are lovely to hold and behold. There is pleasure in reading a well designed book. A little bit of beauty is added to one’s life—something that can’t be measured in terms of pure information.

I also have a funny feeling that, like much of our world that is disappearing onto servers and clouds, eBooks will become ephemeral. I have a sneaking feeling that like lost languages and manuscripts, most digital information will be lost to random glitches and changing formats. Much of our world will become unretrievable—like the wooden houses, music, and knowledge of our ancient predecessors. I have a few physical books that are 100 years old. Will we be able to read our eBooks in 100 years? Really?

We’re sort of making our whole culture and civilization ephemeral—or more ephemeral than ever—with our rush to digitize.

Lastly, as soon as eBooks can be hacked and distributed for free that industry will really be on its knees—just like the music biz.”

Maybe this epiphany came to him during Hurricane Sandy, which caused a power outage in his New York City apartment. You can’t read an eBook, surf the web, or use your push-button phone (vs. rotary) without power. 

And, yes, printed books are more aesthetically pleasing. They also have more history and permanence: I refer regularly to my grandmother’s old, but well-loved, cookbook. My grandmother was an amazing cook, and the book is full of food stains, greasy bits, folded-down corners and notations. I don’t have her anymore, but I have this bit of her. And I imagine my daughter will use this cookbook 20-30 years from now and feel connected to her past in a way she never could with a digital cookbook.

We may love technology, we may need technology, but nature always wins in the end. So give me paper books and real flowers over the plastic kind any day.

“Nothing but flowers”–a song by David Byrne:

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