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Some dead trees are good trees

Laker Notes

ZHANGI love trees.

I live in Oregon, after all, and something tells me that if I’m going to wake up to evergreens and Douglas firs (and rain) outside of my window every morning, I’m obligated to appreciate the green that is my world.

But I also appreciate the greenery in another form: when it’s dead and white and very much flat and crisp and pressed into clean regularity. What I mean, of course, is that I love books as much as I love foliage and flowers and Douglas firs.

Call me an old-fashioned teenager among my tech-savvy, button-mashing, smartphone-wielding peers, but few things please me more than plunking down on the ratty beanbag in my bedroom and opening to the bookmarked page of whichever novel I’m currently reading.

When I think of books, I think of real, tangible, solid hunks of paper and ink (not those new-fangled e-books, which I’ll address in a bit). I think of how they smell like love and thought and comfort, especially the old ones with yellowing pages and notes scrawled here and there by previous owners. I think of the strange pleasure I get when I turn a page and feel myself progressing through the narrative alongside the characters in the story.

I think of the satisfaction I feel when I dog-ear a page (a habit that annoys some people to no end, but hey, each person is entitled to his or her own habits) and provide for myself a sort of time capsule to which I can return and be amazed by the beauty of language again and again.

I realize, of course, that my somewhat-dogmatic loyalty to physical books disregards entirely the progression of society and the merits of e-books. So here it is: E-books are assuredly a better choice in terms of environmental friendliness, and they definitely save people the hassle of carrying the weight of a heavy book around. I know that some people really do prefer e-books to paper books.

But at the same time, I see losses.

For one, research has actually shown that people retain less information when they read e-books versus when they read honest-to-goodness books. That’s the concrete, scientific side of things.

When I read e-books, I press a button to move on through the book, and the pages dissolve one after the other as new ones appear on the screen. In doing so, I lose the simple act of page-turning, the physical affirmation of progression and purpose when I hear the tiny gust of air as I flip the page. I lose the smell of the book. I lose the presence and physicality of my paperbacks and my hardbacks, my nonfictions and my novels — e-books turn the words of a story into ephemeral pixels and, at least for me this transformation changes the way I read in a fundamental and not-so-pleasant way.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I feel that the plot of a paper book exists all at once, allowing me the freedom to jump around and draw conclusions about the text and relate to it. With e-books, on the other hand, as the plot is revealed to me, all the things I have read dissipate from my mind as soon as I click the friendly button to advance to the next page (this goes back to the information retention research I mentioned earlier). E-books, to me, have much less potential for analysis and thought and inference than do paper books, because they are more transient, more abstract, less tangible, less palpable.

E-books are, however, better than not reading at all. At the risk of sounding like a cranky goody-two-shoes, or, God forbid, an English teacher (I’m only kidding here, because I have loved and will always continue to love and admire all of my English teachers), I’ll admit that one of my personal pet peeves is when my classmates use the plot summaries on SparkNotes or Shmoop or BookRags in lieu of actually reading the book. To put it simply, books are written to be truly and honestly read.

Students should not hand their enrichment and education over to strangers who feed their interpretations of the text into those students’ mouths. Books are experiences, and we as humans and citizens of the world really shouldn’t trust anyone other than ourselves to make meaning out of language and its various forms and shapes.

My kind of thinking will likely be obsolete in the very near future (in regard to both the detriments of plot summary websites and e-books), but for the time being my conclusions sum up to this: The young people of this generation who don’t take charge of their educations and experiences are a majority, or at least a somewhat large minority, but there are still some who love what books used to be and still are and will hopefully continue to be, for at least a little while.

There are also young people who are bright-eyed and curious, who right now, in this moment, are exploring the future of language and books and beauty by utilizing new forms of expression such as e-books and the Internet and online media. I don’t count myself among the latter group, but I respect them for what they are doing.

To the older generation: Please don’t lose faith in us, because we are still learning about how we should approach the technology to which we’ve been presented and of which we can take freely. I assure you that we are in good hands: our own.

Ada Zhang, a senior at Lake Oswego High School, is a regular columnist for The Review. She can be reached at education@lakeoswegoreview.com.


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