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Dan Moran: A book is more than just the words inside

Updated: March 3, 2011 2:15AM

Back in 1996, Ray Bradbury visited his beloved Waukegan Public Library during what was, to date, his last formal appearance in his hometown.

It’s hard to recall now, but 1996 — a year when current eighth-graders were being born — was when this whole “Inter-net” age was moving from a crawl to a run. The first version of Explorer was turning Web browsers from a college computer-lab thing into a household thing, and the dot-com bubble had yet to burst.

Amid all this, before a crowd of 300 people shoehorned into a library meeting room, Bradbury issued what has to be one of the great quotes ever uttered in Waukegan: “My God, all this Internet stuff is pure crap. You can’t take a computer to bed. You can take a book to bed.”

But, 15 years later, what if you can do both? The world is starting to find out with the rise of e-readers — and the Waukegan Public Library is about to join the rise.

As of May 1, library patrons will have the option of renting e-books for download onto their Kindles or Nooks or what-not. At a time when the library is struggling to make ends meet and provide services, this new program was made possible by a grant designed specifically for this purpose. The e-rental wave of digital books, audiobooks and videos, it should be noted, has already hit libraries from Antioch to Grayslake to Zion-Benton.

One beauty of this system is that, once the rental period is over, the download simply disappears from your reader. There’s no physical book to return at the last minute on a rainy night, no accruing fines to pay when you lift up a couch cushion two weeks later and find that missing paperback.

Of course, it could be argued that the beauty of an actual book is more than just the words inside. It’s the heft of a 1,000-page epic in your hands, the earthy smell that a classic title acquires after years in circulation. That’s the stuff that Bradbury talked about taking to bed.

On the other hand, even my Sainted Mother, born in the last years of the Great Depression, has jumped on the e-reader bandwagon, so you know it’s getting serious. Bradbury warned us about the downside of runaway technology in “Fahrenheit 451,” but one upside might be that books now have another way to avoid being burned.

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