Splitting Panda Hairs

I have a Kindle.

This might come as a shock to you. Apparently it really does shock people to find out that their closest relatives, their friends, their neighbours, perhaps even their pet hamsters suddenly come out of the closet, so to speak, and admit to owning, and (*gasp*) using an electronic device to read a text. 


A Literary Standoff

I write this because, as a matter of fact, this happens to me at least once every week. Usually on a train. The antagonist in this nerve-wrecking rollercoaster of a tale usually sits at the other side of the table, casually leaned over a book. A paper book.  And as the train departs i then open my backpack and produce my Kindle.

Now, before we go on, i wish to make clear that this works with any device. Kindle or Nook, or whatever. The main point is that it’s an e-reader. Not an iPad, nor any of the other tablet PC’s. An e-book. 

As i start reading, the antagonist suddenly looks up from his book and produces a Smile of Discomfort, and then continues reading his novel.  This goes on and on and on for 5 minutes or so, after which the magical phrase is uttered, usually with a slight hint of utter contempt. 

“Does it REALLY read that easy from a computer screen?”

Before i can deliver the riposte, the next sentence has already been flung across the airwaves

“Gosh, i REALLY love the smell of books and paper, i couldn’t do without it. It’s all about the entire experience, you know. Reading. The perfume of the pages. I’m really more of a book person. Wouldn’t be able to read on a computer”

Before moving on in this story of book-to-book combat, let’s make a short jump in history. Somewhere around 105 AD, in ancient China. To the invention of paper.


New problem, same old Story

Traditionally, the invention of paper is attributed to a certain Cai Lun, official at the court of the Han Dynasty. In fact, it might even be older than that (much older), but for now let’s say the oldest sources give Cai the credit.It doesn’t really matter here anyway, because the point i want to make is that the use of paper was a serious improvement on the way people had been writing and reading texts before.

Before the invention of paper, people had been writing on bamboo. Texts were written on bamboo sticks cut in half, and several of those sticks were then sewn together into a bundle to form a text. You then had to roll them up into a bundle. Confucius wrote his Analects in this way, and if you wanted to carry his texts with you to be able to quote interesting citations at innocent passersby, you had to have a carriage full of bamboo bundles, each well numbered to keep them in the right order. You would think that the advent of paper would have been applauded, then. No more bamboo, make way for sheets of wood fiber! 

And…no. Viscous comments were to follow, and the practice to write on bamboo remained for quite a time. Old habits die hard. Of course, there was the usual problem that some habits were first adopted by the court, and not too widespread on the countryside, where bamboo was easier to find and where paper technology hadn’t reached yet. 

But i can easily picture a scene where two scholars of the Han Court sit in a room together. One rolls out his bamboo book on a large table. The other takes his bag, and produces a copy of the very same Imperial edict, on paper. 
The Smile of Discomfort. The Gaze of Contempt. 

“Oh, i REALLY love the smell of bamboo, don’t you? And those little panda hairs you can sometimes find on the back of the sticks. Just wonderful.” 

“I wouldn’t be able to read on PAPER, mind you. That white background. The feel of those fibers? No, i really prefer a 12 kilo stack of imperial edicts on bamboo that LIGHTweight paper”


Ink and Incapability

So let get this straight once and for all. 
I don’t read on a computer screen. I read on a Kindle, an e-book, a device that holds ink in small microscopic
capsules in very much the same way cellulose fibers hold ink inside paper. By sending a small current through the capsules you can change the configuration of the ink, and form different letters than the one’s you were reading one second before. That’s it. No magic, no computer, no hocus pocus. No screen. 

The text on an e-book appears on paper.  

“Sure, but really… i really like a library, with real books, books you can touch and browse”

Indeed. And i have one of those at home. Two, in fact. One for scientific books, one for fiction. And the books i really want to keep, to read for a second time, and browse are in there. But don’t expect me to buy pocket books in a shop anymore, if i can buy them for one third of the price on Amazon, and download them directly from the mobile phone network to my e-book, wherever i am in the world. And i can carry 2000 of those in my backpack, in one device.

Like music and films, books have entered the digital era. And holding on to paper books for “the feel and the smell and the panda hairs” is OK, it really is. But all too often people using new technology are criticized for using it and for ‘destroying the old ways’. We will have to find a solution for illegal copying, just like we have to do it for the other media, but I am convinced that ten years from now people will have made the transition.  



Language and writing are one of the younger elements of human culture, but in the few thousand years people have written marvelous things. First on rocks, turtle shields, then on bronze and finally on paper. The common trend in all this is the increase in accessibility. 

30 years ago, to read a text only available in a library at the other end of the world you would have had to travel there or ask for a paper copy to be sent. Only yesterday i read a series of very old documents, describing the construction of a village road somewhere in the Dordogne (France) early 18th century, hidden in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, freely available online in an online database called Gallica

And while it would be more authentic to read them in Paris, smelly paper, panda hairs and all, the power of the text lies in its words. 

And in our imagination.