Saturday night is the start of the eight-day festival, Hanukkah. Although it's a minor holiday, its proximity to Christmas has led to Hanukkah becoming widely-celebrated and a holiday for gift-giving.
When I was a young boy, my father's older cousin, Lillian, made a practice of giving a book to me as my Hanukkah present, as she had done with my father on special occasions.
Her books were my gateway to the worlds of literature - "Gulliver's Travels," "Treasure Island," "Tom Sawyer," "Tom Swift" - history, and Lillian's favorite topic (for me to learn, anyway), science. Reading those books expanded my world to the seven seas and small villages separated by time and space from the New York neighborhoods where I grew up. Reading carried my imagination from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the furthest galaxies, from prehistory to the future. Those books, given with love to an 8-year-old kid, instilled a love of reading that's endured throughout my life.
As a kid, I'd often take a book and a flashlight to bed, pull the covers over my head, read and wonder how Gulliver could ever escape from Lilliput, or whether Injun Joe would nab Huck and Tom. I think my parents would let me read for a while before they'd come in and make me "turn off the light and go to sleep already, because tomorrow's a school day."
For me, books were always more than just words on paper. The texture of a book's cover, the feel of turning a page, the kind of paper on which the book was printed were all part of the reading experience. But now, dozens of books exist only as bits and bytes on my e-book reader, leather and paper now plastic and glass. E-books are the future.
And e-book readers are the present. One of this year's most popular gifts will be e-book readers like Kindles or Nooks. Every new tablet computer has software for downloading and reading digital books. If you have one of these devices, you can take advantage of many free books their manufacturers offer. Also, Project Gutenberg makes more than 40,000 titles available for free download.
The Carroll County Library, part of the Maryland digital eLibrary Consortium, has been buying licenses for e-books and circulating them for several years. Each year a greater percentage of library expenditures is for digital media, mostly e-books; check out the library's catalog of digital media at library.carr.org.
Colleges have begun making the transition to e-books as well. Recently, five major universities pooled resources to use their buying power to negotiate reduced prices for digital copies of textbooks. This pilot project has had mixed success. Only a few courses have moved to e-books, and some students still prefer print. But as technology evolves, the cost advantage of e-books assures that all but the most esoteric texts will be delivered to students' computers. And why stop with e-books? Many universities offer online courses, many of which are completely free. And for-profit online universities, warts and all, are here to stay.
Printed books are this century's version of typewriters and vinyl records. The shift of recorded music from wax to vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CDs and now to online digital delivery is an example of how technological advances create obsolescence. But while the printed word may change its form, reading is still the door to knowledge, adventure and entertainment.
As that well-known philosopher, Marx - Groucho, not Karl - once said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." And a new Kindle Fire means kids can read in bed without flashlights, to say nothing of spouses not disturbing each other's sleep.
As we get closer to Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, allow me to paraphrase an old poem, "Merry holidays to all, and to all a good book" - electronic or otherwise.