How not to present a panel on “Reading in the Digital Age.”

Let’s take two men on opposing sides of an issue and throw them in front of an audience of casual spectators. Let’s give them what is somewhat of a hot-button issue, at least at this event. Let’s say the event is a book festival. Let’s say the issue is the increasing market share of e-readers and what it means to the landscape of literature, publishing and reading itself.

Let’s say one of these guys is Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, an organization that seeks through the e-book format to make accessible all of the world’s greatest works, including some that – with permission – are still in copyright. While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and say the other guy is Michael Dirda, a Fullbright Fellowship recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post book critic.

(Let’s also say Marilyn Johnson, author and library stalwart, is there, representing the middle ground but unable to get a word in edgewise.)

Now, let’s sit back and wait for an answer we’ll never get.

Because neither of these men is interested in bridging the gap between the promise and accessibility of ebooks and the tangible joy and art of physical binding. Neither of these men is interested in discussing how Project Gutenberg offers limitless preservation of what used to be the fragile and time-consuming practice of book collecting, and neither is interested in discussing how a mix of both physical and e-books helps people rediscover the joys of reading.

Instead, both men want a pissing match.

E-books are awful, a slap in the face of literature, and you water down the process of literary experience by missing out on the feel and texture of the book itself.

Physical books are pointless, archaic, space-hogging and inefficient, and everyone should read books electronically because you can fit 30,000 on one disc.

It’s one or the other. Love it or leave it. If you’re not with ‘em, you’re against ‘em.

Now, let’s vent. Because after seeing the previous example, live, in person, at the Sioux Falls Orpheum, in front of hundreds of interested people attending the South Dakota Festival of Books, I came away feeling disgusted and disappointed, frustrated that the promise of what could have been a great discussion turned out to be a symposium on Michael Hart’s inability to look behind his own project and Michael Dirda’s weak attempts at playing the same game.

The real issue is how we use e-books to further literature and adapt with the times, understanding that even ancient scrolls were pushed out by the more efficient book format, and that was thousands of years ago. Books will never go away – Dirda’s point on the art and tangible feeling that comes with reading a physical book is right on – but we can’t be naive in thinking it’s the only way to read.

Not when so many people are living without access to physical books. Not when you can provide a book in seconds to a willing audience. And especially not when there is already a drop in literacy rates and willingness to let books OF ALL TYPES fall by the wayside.

Traditional books and their texture? They mean nothing unless someone reads them.

30,000 books on a disc, for free? THEY ALSO MEAN NOTHING UNLESS SOMEONE READS THEM.

Let’s pretend that the two sides sat down and discussed the future of reading. The future of publishing. The future of literature and writing and everything that goes along with it, because, let’s face it, the future of reading is also the future of education and the future of our countries and the future of the world.

Let’s pretend the only agenda brought into this panel was one of collaboration and innovation.

Don’t I wish that was the case.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 27th, 2010