Once upon a time, I lived for books. I was the kind who haunted bookstores, lined the walls with my cherished plunder, piled teetering stacks by the bedside.
Isn't it shocking, then, how easily love turns to hate? I'm talking to you, my burdensome old friends, loitering self-importantly on shelves and tables all over the house. Your crumbling pages and dusty bindings, the difficulty of keeping you organized, the way you walk off with any casual visitor and never come home, the impossibility of finding a passage in any of you, the leaden boxes I had to schlep whenever we moved, my waning need to impress people with your fat bindings mounted like moosehunting trophies on the wall -- guys, I'm over you now. The pretense of permanence about you is as flimsy as the cheap glue and paper from which you're made nowadays.
I've felt this way for a while, secretly, ever since I started reading on an iPad. My wife disagreed -- until she got a Kindle. Now we don't mention our old flame, both of us embarrassed by our shared youthful passion.
The convenience of tablets -- 326 million will sell in 2015, the Gartner research firm says -- has changed everything. I'm even willing to buy an e-book of something I already own in print. That's how far superior digital editions are if you aren't someone who fetishizes books as physical objects.
What freed me to face my loathing were the folks at Encyclopaedia Britannica, who announced the liberating news last week that they would no longer issue bound volumes.
We have a set, in a corner of the den. My teenage sons, for whom it was purchased, apparently believe it's radioactive, because they never go near it. I'll admit, it always had its flaws. You have to look up everything two or three times, thanks to a harebrained decision some years back to split the encyclopedia into micro and macro components. You were supposed to start with the index, as I recall.
Now you can access the encyclopedia online for an annual fee, or via DVD. This told me something: If Britannica can live on without ink on paper, so can I. The sheer inconvenience of physical Britannica, in fact, helped me understand that I hadn't lost interest in the mind of the books I once loved. Only in their decrepit bodies.
Yet there's no pretending the two weren't related. Consider the nonfiction books that peer down from all sides as I write this. How many wouldn't have benefited from a bit of a diet? Bariatric surgery would be more like it; commercial reasons aside, many didn't need to be book-length in the first place. It's heartening to see that digital distribution has revived what were once called pamphlets, or monographs -- works longer than magazine articles, but shorter than traditional books.
I won't pretend there's no loss here. Once, you could signal other booklovers on the Long Island Rail Road with the volume you were reading, so they could judge you by its cover. When a book was printed, you had a fixed edition that might last centuries -- and was harder to pirate (I'm a writer, after all, as well as a reader).
On the other hand, now people can read things via tablet they were sheepish showing off between covers. They can sample almost anything, and take more chances because e-books cost less. Classic writers beyond copyright may well enjoy a revival; I always meant to get around to Arnold Bennett, but as a free download "The Old Wives' Tale" was at last irresistible -- and magnificent. The more fluid nature of e-books means they can always be kept up to date. Digital books are easier to search, annotate and use in my work.
As for all you physical books, well, you do make a room. You're just no longer needed to furnish a mind.
Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.