On Digital Book World, senior editor Daniel Berkowitz argues that “books cannot become mere content.” Or at least, he sort of does. He spends most of the article talking about how we’re consuming more and more media these days—more and more “content.”
He only gets to the crux of the matter in the last few paragraphs, two of which go:
A book is different from the other forms of content listed above. At the risk of sound hokey or trite, there is something sacred about a book that there isn’t about any other form of media.
I believe that books have a history that is unique and sets them apart from all other forms of content. They are, in my view, an indelible part of the culture whose importance and status must be preserved.
Okay, I’ll bite. Why? Why are books more important than other forms of content? That’s basically as far as he goes toward explaining it; the last couple paragraphs are about how if we don’t give books their special place in the limelight, our culture will lose something precious. But again, no further explanations given as to why.
Now, I like books (and e-books!) as much as the next guy. That’s why I’m here blogging about them. But books are not unique in being a way to convey information or a story. Nor are they unique in having a history that goes back hundreds of years.
Just look at playing cards. History books trace their origin back hundreds of years, across continents. But do we make a big deal out of how those are special, and threatened by the rise of board games and video games?
Books are terrific, but I enjoy a good video game, or movie, or TV show, too. I enjoy a good story that is told well in any medium. Is there anything wrong with that if that medium isn’t books? Judging by Berkowitz’s column, the answer is yes, because it isn’t books.
There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like, and thinking what you like is special, because you like it. We all do that. And we rationalize it to ourselves by appealing to history and tradition. I can discuss how movies draw from over a century of cinematographic history just as readily as Berkowitz can discuss how books go back multiple centuries.
But when you offer that appeal up as your sole justification to argue for the primacy of your chosen art form, you just come off looking silly. It makes it easy to make fun of your arguments, because you really haven’t got any. Which is a shame, because books are an important part of our cultural heritage, and do deserve to be protected. It’s just that other parts of our cultural heritage deserve it just as much.
I do think that referring to any media as “content” genericizes and devalues them, which is why I try to avoid it as much as I can. But perhaps media deserve to be taken generically if it means we can get over this silly business of trying to put one of them ahead of any other. Anything that lets us relate stories, history, facts, opinions…those are all worth preserving and protecting.