Are You a Format Snob?
“I just prefer the feel of real books. I’m sure you agree they’re just better!”
I can’t tell you how many times patrons have said this to me. They state their preference for print books very proudly and look for validation from library staff like me. I usually oblige them a little. Yes, there is something very special about holding a book in your hands experiencing it as an object. But I’ll always put in a good word for audiobooks, and how since I’ve had kids, they’re the only way I can keep up with my reading. If this thought hadn’t occurred to them and they seem receptive, I’d also add that I know people who are incredibly fast readers, and the only way they’ve avoided being buried in paperbacks is by adopting ebooks.
I don’t want to get pedantic, but I’m tired of people who prefer print thinking they’re somehow better people for it.
There is a format for everyone, and if we’re lucky we can bounce between formats when it suits us (personally, I prefer audiobooks for fiction and print for nonfiction). But sometimes, you meet people who still sniff at the mention of other formats, and insist they’ll never waiver from reading “real” books. To them, I say now, what is a book? What makes your preferred format more real than any other? Sometimes they say that their format is the original one, and audiobooks and ebooks are modern methods of cheating at reading. They will usually reluctantly acknowledge that there is an accessibility angle at play; Blind people should get to listen to stories or use braille, the elderly should get to choose their font size, and it is pretty neat that someone with dyslexia can change their font altogether. But everyone else should have to read the Real Thing.
Well, friend-who’s-a-format-snob, you’re wrong again. The “books” you enjoy are not the only real books, and they’re sometimes not even original to your preferred format.
Let’s go over a quick history of storytelling.
Before there was writing of any kind, stories were told. You know, verbally. Oral storytelling is one of the oldest art forms in the world, and it takes real skill to remember everything and bring some style to one’s performance. If we’re thinking about stories that shaped civilization, most of them started as oral traditions, including the Iliad and every ancient civilization’s mythologies. So if we’re going to get nitpicky about the format, if you’re reading the Iliad in print instead of listening to it or dramatically reciting it to your friends, you’re the one doing it wrong.
Then we have the introduction of writing. Famously, Socrates was against writing and reading. His students later wrote (lol) that he believed the only effective means of communication was direct to a person’s face, and that books were no substitute for using one’s memory.
While we’re on the subject of ancient books, let’s correct a common misconception. Many book nerds would have loved to see the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt; maybe even have saved some books. If you’re fantasizing about yourself carrying out heavy tomes of paper sandwiched between two covers, once again, you’re doing it wrong. Books in the ancient world (and into the medieval period) were often scrolls or clay tablets.
So what are those things on the shelves at bookstores and libraries called? Is there a special word for them? Aren’t they just “books?” In fact, they do have a special name. Their format is called a codex (codices is the plural form). There were loads of real books before the codex became the dominant format.
If you prefer the pages-between-covers type of book for your reading, that’s fine! People are allowed to have preferences. But as someone who works with all kinds of books, I’d be more impressed by someone announcing, “I prefer codices. It’s so satisfying to hold something in my hands when I read.” You’re not going to win points with anyone in the library world by insisting that only a codex is a “real book.” It’s a relative newcomer to the game (codices reached parity with scrolls around 1700 years ago, and became the dominant format around 100 years later).
But what about ebooks and audiobooks? Those are SUPER new, right? Not really. Remember the formats that came before the codex. We have oral stories/histories and scrolls. Audiobooks are just a preserved oral telling of a story. And what do we call it when you “turn” pages or move down a page on an electronic device? Scrolling! So even though the delivery methods require electricity, the actual experience of reading a book with earbuds or on an ereader is actually more like how ancient peoples experienced books than the codex.
Go ahead and have a favorite format. We’re allowed to have favorites. But don’t make the style of your book into a moral victory, or statement of your values. The great thing about living in this time is that we have options. Let people enjoy books the way they do, and just be glad that books are as accessible as they are and people are reading at all!
Still proudly devoted to the codex? Download our free bookmarks for August 2022, and announce your allegiance while you read!
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Ariel and Brianna are friends who met while working in a library. Now they collaborate to develop life-enhancing book club experiences.
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