Tuesday 19 November 2019

Do you lick your fingers to turn the pages? On judginess and book shaming

This will be a ranty post. Also, let me preface it with the fact that the vast majority of the books I read are ebooks. I seldom, if ever, read books printed on paper anymore.

I saw a post the other day, from someone pointing out how ebooks are better than paper books. It went like this:

"Do you lick your finger before turning a page? If so how many germs are transferred, would you do this with a library book or a friend's book? Or just your own? Long live ebooks!"

First, I'm going to answer the question as written, and explain why I personally don't think it's an issue. Then I'm going to talk a little about why I think questions like that are dangerous and unnecessary.

Do I lick my fingers before turning a page?

No, not as a rule. I've been known to do so if the pages stick, but I know there are people who do it as a habit. And it doesn't matter if it's their own book, a friend's book, a library book, or one they found in a secondhand bookstore.

But here’s the thing: people have been doing that for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For as long as paper books have existed, in fact. Now I wish I could tell you that nobody’s ever died from reading a book because someone before them licked their fingers and turned a page, but I can’t because I don’t know. My gut tells me it’d be rare, though — rare enough for it not to matter.

And when I think of that question, I think about the (somewhat, but not quite related) habit of licking stamps. Sure, we rarely send letters these days, but if you ever did, I guarantee you licked the stamps before you stuck them on the envelope. So every letter you received contained someone else's saliva. And what if you collect stamps? Your stamp book contains hundreds or thousands of DNA samples from other people.

I’m reminded of those memes on social media, giving examples of all the things we used to do as kids which people frown upon now, and how we turned out all right, regardless.

In fact, I grew up believing that exposure to germs is necessary — crucially important — to the development of a healthy immune system. All the way through primary school, I was the kid who was always putting things in his mouth. I would chew on pencils and suck on erasers. I would literally tear pieces of paper out of my workbooks and chew them. Some might consider that a symptom of a mental disorder, but I grew out of it (or I just discovered cigarettes in high school, granting a social acceptability to my oral fixation), and I turned out okay.

Aside from that, we stuck our tongues on iced-over soccer goalposts. We pressed our lips on the hot Slasto and timed how long it took for our spit to evaporate. We skinned our knees and our fathers (sometimes our friends’ fathers) spat on them. We made and ate mud pies, many of which probably contained dog mess. We swam in slimy dams. The list goes on.

Even today, as adults, there are about a million ways we're exposed to germs every day. The man you just shook hands with? What if he went to the toilet five minutes ago and didn't wash his hands properly? Or maybe the other person he shook hands with five minutes before had just finished masturbating?

Or perhaps the lady sitting next to you in church or the cinema just coughed into her fist, shooting her germ-laden spittle a hundred and eighty degrees towards you.

And what if one of those people were to swipe their cellphone, tablet, or ereader screen and then hand it to you so you could look at something? That's a fairly common occurrence, and it might just be the electronic equivalent of licking the pages in a paper book before turning them.

I suppose technically, any of these things could kill you, but I do firmly believe that, unless you have a compromised immune system (through being very young, very old, or having an auto-immune condition, for example), being exposed to them in moderation can only strengthen you. Unless you’re in China, maybe, and you have to wear a surgical mask to leave the house!

Having said all this, I understand a little about phobias. I’m deathly afraid of spiders and marginally afraid of heights (although I love to fly, because once you’re no longer connected to the ground by anything, the height doesn’t matter anymore).

Germophobia, though? Nah, that's never been one of mine. I suppose there are lots of perfectly logical reasons to fear germs. More than spiders or heights, maybe. But they've never been something I've concerned myself with.

Note that I fully expect to be inundated with comments, from people who know people who have died from every one of those things I mentioned. Also, I wouldn't recommend swimming in slimy dams full of effluent, because the level of toxicity in our liquid waste is far higher today than when we were kids. But my point stands: exercise a little common sense and expose yourself to everyday bacteria in moderation, and you'll build a strong, healthy immune system... unless you have a condition that compromises your immune system, as I pointed out. Also, cue the obligatory disclaimers about me not being a medical professional, and me not offering medical advice!

Why is this such a problem?

Many people hold religious-level feelings about book formats and will defend to the death their distaste for one over another. This most often manifests as paper book die-hards attacking consumers of ebooks and audiobooks, sometimes going so far as to imply that ebooks aren't real books.

If we're not careful (and I've been guilty of this too), we ebook and audiobook fans could fall into the trap of "fighting back" and lashing out, and I don't think that's helpful.

The problem is, when asking a question/making a statement like the one that sparked this post, unless you’re careful about your wording and intonation, it can come across as “judgy” or “preachy”. Mocking of people who still prefer to read off paper.

That's tantamount to disparaging someone for enjoying Fifty Shades of Gray, or for liking pulp fantasy or Klingon-human romance or something. That's called Book Shaming. And it's not cool.

We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Personally, I always strive to keep my wording along the lines of why I prefer ebooks, or why I don't read paper books anymore, without trying to prescribe what other people should or shouldn't do, or poke fun at them for doing or not doing certain things.

As readers, let's stick together. The reading is the important bit, not the format on which we consume books. Let's go out into the world and show all our non-reading friends how important reading is, and how much fun it can be.

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