How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-book

I have trouble understanding the panic that much of the culture seems to be experiencing over the rise of e-books at the expense of their dead-tree predecessors. I understand that there are charms and benefits that are unique to the physical codex, and there are few who appreciate those more than I do. But there are times I feel that folks who prefer physical books to their electronic brethren are behaving not as though a particular medium for content delivery is going out of fashion, but that literature itself is doing to disappear, like a species crucial to the ecosystem is about to go suddenly extinct.

Might I suggest a little moderation of this cultural neurosis? Yes, it is true, sales of e-books will likely surpass those of physical paper books any second now, if they haven’t already. Tablets and e-readers are getting cheaper and cheaper, and purchasing the electronic version of a book is therefore becoming a smarter idea overall, in regard to their convenience (great), price (usually lower than new physical books), selection (almost unlimited), and in terms of the raw space they take up (absolutely none). This ship has sailed.

All that said, I’m also totally in favor of the romanticization of physical books. In the various getting-to-know-you exercises I’ve had to endure in several jobs, for example, one almost always gets the “what’s your favorite smell” question, and my answer is almost always “old paperbacks.” The combination of pulp, glue, ink, and dust form a bouquet that takes me back to my first memories of being totally engrossed by a book. Extremely evocative. And of course, I enjoy the book as an object: it’s a memento, a trophy, an award, a physical manifestation of someone else’s Big Thoughts. Of course they’re wonderful.

But let’s get a little perspective. When it comes down to it, regardless of what the latest curmudgeonly missive from a disgruntled (and probably ungodly rich) author and bibliophile might tell you, the primary function of a book is not to induce reveries of nostalgia, or wonderment at a bookbinder’s craftsmanship. It’s to read the words that someone has written. That being the purpose, the e-book is the winner, and to argue otherwise is to, I think, misunderstand what the hell a book is for. I miss the smell, but I am loving the space I get back in my apartment.

For some, this panic has less to do with the object itself, the physical book, than it does with the place from which one purchases said object. I feel some of this anxiety, as the bookstore has long been my favored place of escape. In any city or town (and this was particularly true when I was a touring actor), I would find great relief when I’d discover the nearest bookstore, be it a superchain, local indie, or used book shop.

But this is not necessarily because I wanted to buy books. Sure, I often would, but these places were to me oases more than stores. I never felt like I’d have to worry about being disturbed, or judged for being nerdy, or what have you, while surrounded by Other People’s Big Thoughts. Usually quiet, inviting, comfortable, often serving coffee, bookstores have been a Safe Place for Paul.

So I don’t like the idea of them disappearing. And perhaps they won’t. A long piece in The Atlantic by Ann Patchett tells of her adventures in opening a new independent bookstore in Nashville, and the place goes gangbusters. I think this is supposed to imply that there is a real hunger for this kind of place that has been neglected in the wake of Amazon’s success, but I have to wonder if it has more to do with the fact that she’s a famous person who, because she’s famous, got a ton of free national publicity. I don’t know. I’m glad if there is a glimmer of hope for bookstores, but I’m skeptical at what Patchett’s experience can tell us about the real world.

Even with that skepticism, however, I don’t believe that bookstores or the physical book itself are doomed. Just as there will always be those who prefer vinyl LPs to MP3s — much more so, actually — I think the traditional codex will always have a healthy and active market to satisfy. Despite e-books’ advantages, there’s little that’s wrong with the physical book, and even ravenous e-book consumers can appreciate and enjoy receiving and owning physical books. Just not so damn many, you know?

There’s also longevity to think of. I have little to no confidence that the .AZW files that I’ve “purchased” to read on my Kindle will be accessible in thirty years. Or even ten. What with the rise and fall of various software and hardware platforms and DRM locks, one can never trust that one will still “own” their e-books decades from now. My physical copy of Anathem, then, will remain with me, as will, for example, our Harry Potters, hopefully to remain in the family over the generations. I don’t see myself passing my Kindle Paperwhite to my grandkids. (I’ve posted thoughts about the Paperwhite here and here.)

Even longer-term, there’s simple degradation. Hard drives, CDs, solid state drives, all these media upon which we “permanently” save all this content will fail, eventually. So far, (as best I know) the best way our species has found to preserve the written word is on well-cared-for paper (acid-free being optimal, so I’m told). You want to be able to read something 200 years from now? You better hope someone sacrificed a tree to set it down in print.

And they probably have. And so they probably will. I have a sort of book that I authored (my master’s thesis converted to e-book format), but it will likely never be “in print” if it never gets beyond the hundred or so copies it’s sold so far. But I’d guess that anything that’s gone above that threshold will wind up in physical book form, and will have an audience and a market.

But nothing like what it might have had before the coming of the Age of the Kindle. And that’s okay. As we as a society adopt new technologies and formats, there will always be things we inadvertently lose as a result of all we gain. It’s okay to be sad about those lost things, but one shouldn’t panic. One shouldn’t rend one’s garments as though Culture and Wisdom themselves are being frittered away in a cloud of electrons. If enough people want to buy physical books (or LPs, or typewriters) someone will make them. In the meantime, I’ll keep the ability to have thousands of books at my literal fingertips and trade the smell of pulp, ink, glue, and dust.

There are lots of other smells out there. And more importantly, a hell of a lot more books to read.

UPDATE:

Hyrax in the comments gives technical clarification:

Actually, the most enduring method of recording the written word we’ve come up with is microfilm. While acid-free paper will last a long time, as long as the storage conditions are good– not too damp! and then there’s the problem of what the cover and binding are made of– it’s still quite susceptible to fire and water and can be easily torn. And even then it will degrade over time, given long enough. Microfilm is fireproof, waterproof, and should remain in perfect condition for hundreds of years. Of course, there is the teensy downside of needing a microfilm reader to, y’know, read it. And the massive downside that microfilm readers are basically instant headache inducers, although YMMV on that last bit.

I did an internship in a very large research archive for a summer, and I learned a lot about the preservation and fragility of books. I mean, books my father read as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which now rest on my bookshelf, have yellowed and brittle paper, and many of the covers are coming apart. If you take care of them, books can last a good while, but typically what you buy in a bookshop isn’t going to be archival quality.

Also, even though your digital copy of the book might not last the test of time, thanks to cloud storage it will likely still be out there somewhere. Even if a person can lose their individual copy, the knowledge won’t be lost.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-book

  1. Hello Paul. I go to bookstores just to smell the books. There I am, a completely non-descript person walking around, opening books just to smell them. Sometimes I will buy one. I’ve always been a complete book nerd. My Dearie has an e-reader but I won’t get one. Well maybe if I ever go on a long trip. There is that other great book experience…when you order from Amazon and, FINALLY, it arrives at the post office.

    Like

  2. Your post kept repeating one fallacy in your argument. You don’t buy ebooks. You buy permission to access them; permission that can be revoked at any point. At best it could be said you’re renting them. You can’t sell the permission to someone else or loan it unless you’re loaning the complete tablet. If the book you rented wound up being lousy, you can’t return it. But with a physical book you can.
    I’m not saying ebooks are better or worse than physical ones, but I think we should be honest about what we’re “buying”.

    Like

    • Exactly! and this is why, while I do have a few e-books, I am hesitant to convert my library of keepers to some e-format. Why isn’t there a netflick-ish option for e-books? Read all the books you want a month one at a time for a flat monthly fee? Many of the books I buy I may only read once. If I don’t own those pixels anyway, why not an honest rental option?

      Like

  3. All it took for me to convert to e-books was moving and then realizing I would likely be moving again in another year. I have so many boxes of books that are so heavy and I just don’t want to add to that.
    Also, it’s nice to finish a book late at night and be able to get the next book in the series without having to get out of bed.

    Like

  4. Here’s an author’s point of view.
    Getting printed on dead trees by a traditional publisher is extremely slow and difficult. (Of course this does save the reader from people who can’t write as well as they’d like to think they can.)
    Alternately, you can self publish. Self publishing on dead trees means a scary investment up front. I’ve just done that with a non-fiction book of local interest (a guide book to the astronomical observatory here) and I’d never have dared to go ahead if the local government hadn’t promised to buy enough copies to cover the bulk of the costs. As it turns out, I’m really glad I did. After only four days, it looks like I’m going to need a second printing at some point.
    On the other hand, I produced an anthology of my SF short stories as an ebook. Again, I’d never have dared to go ahead with a paper copy, and thank goodness I didn’t since I’ve sold 15 of them since April. If I’d risked a chunk of savings on producing a paper version of it, I’d likely never have had the nerve to self publish again.
    I think the lower barrier for publishing ebooks means a wider choice available for the reader. Of course it also means that some books will be published when it would have been kinder to strangle them at birth.
    I’ve sold about 40 short stories, so I’m fairly confident that my unsuccessful ebook didn’t deserve to be strangled, and at least I got to try.

    Like

  5. So far, (as best I know) the best way our species has found to preserve the written word is on well-cared-for paper (acid-free being optimal, so I’m told). You want to be able to read something 200 years from now? You better hope someone sacrificed a tree to set it down in print.

    Actually, the most enduring method of recording the written word we’ve come up with is microfilm. While acid-free paper will last a long time, as long as the storage conditions are good– not too damp! and then there’s the problem of what the cover and binding are made of– it’s still quite susceptible to fire and water and can be easily torn. And even then it will degrade over time, given long enough. Microfilm is fireproof, waterproof, and should remain in perfect condition for hundreds of years. Of course, there is the teensy downside of needing a microfilm reader to, y’know, read it. And the massive downside that microfilm readers are basically instant headache inducers, although YMMV on that last bit.
    I did an internship in a very large research archive for a summer, and I learned a lot about the preservation and fragility of books. I mean, books my father read as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which now rest on my bookshelf, have yellowed and brittle paper, and many of the covers are coming apart. If you take care of them, books can last a good while, but typically what you buy in a bookshop isn’t going to be archival quality.
    Also, even though your digital copy of the book might not last the test of time, thanks to cloud storage it will likely still be out there somewhere. Even if a person can lose their individual copy, the knowledge won’t be lost.
    Sorry, I just needed to quibble with you for a moment. 🙂 Overall I absolutely agree with your post. I’m an absolute bibliophile, loving the physical artifact of the book; I sometimes even fall asleep more easily if I’m holding a book in my hand! But I also love my e-reader, for all the reasons you mentioned. Being able to travel with hundreds of books in my purse? Yes please! Plus it’s ideal for reading in bed, a big advantage for me. The anti-e-reader attitude is one I see pretty often among my nerdy/intellectual friends, and I always have to jump in and defend them.
    Final anecdote: a friend of mine has a young (3-year-old) child. She mentioned that she was worried about instilling a desire to read in him, since she so often reads on her iPhone and Kindle. But the other day she saw him playing with his plastic toy phone, and she asked him what he was doing. His response? “I reading a book!” So that’s pretty encouraging. 🙂

    Like

    • Velum parchment, written with oak-gall ink, can last for millennia, and it’s native human-readable. Then there’s fired clay tablets…
      As for the wider issue, I can’t help being reminded of a scene from Buffy:
      Jenny Calendar: Honestly, what is it about [computers] that bothers you so much?
      Giles: The smell.
      Jenny Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert.
      Giles: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

      Like

  6. Last Christmas I bought my girlfriend a Nook, and she’s been really enjoying it. So I bought a Cybook Odyssey to find out if I’d like ebooks but never got around to using it.
    Recently I went on holiday and where I usually take ten or so books with me to read I took fewer and my new ebook.
    The ebook worked wonderfully, much better than I expected.
    And now I feel uneasy about it.
    I find the idea of books disappearing from shelves and not being available for tactile inspection and physical serendipitous discovery disconcerting.
    But more I find the business of buying ebooks concerning.
    I will not buy anything, ever, that comes with DRM. But also I resent the prices being charged (which is odd because an ebook is more versatile and therefore by rational measure more valuable than a printed one).
    In example, for light entertainment I’ve been enjoying Taylor Andersons Destroyer Men books, and bought the first five paperbacks. I’m eager for the next, but it’s only available in hardback for USD 16.00, but I could buy it for USD 12.00 from several ebook retailers.
    I am happy to pay for it, I want to pay for it but I am annoyed that the price being asked is on a scale of a hardback and definitely more than a paperback.
    I feel that USD 4 ~ 6.00 dollars would cause no hesitation in my buying a DRM free copy of a book I wanted and I suspect that range will become the norm.
    But even then I have a queasy feeling about paying for insubstantial bits that I know is irrational but leaves me wondering about a world where people feel that way.
    On a radio show recently (The Museum Of Curiosity, BBC Radio 4, which I heartily recommend) I heard an advertising professional talking about peoples odd valuations of things and how he found it weird how people do not attach much value to the insubstantial bits that are obviously so valuable to their lives experiences and cultural participation while over-valuing anything physically tangible beyond all rational value.
    It seems a real issue with moving to digital content, we don’t seem well suited to incorporating it in our current value/economic thinking.
    I also find the issue of lending very problematic – I will not buy anything with DRM involved for it is an unadulterated evil, but the simple digital file is trivial for me to lend to friends just as I often lend books. Only unlike with the printed book my friend need never buy their own afterwards for I am not deprived of my own.
    And that’s a simple logical dilemma. By it’s very nature digital is not limited in quantity and economic models predicated on the production of limited supply do not work.

    Like

  7. I am split. Some books I want as e-books, some as physical books. Some books I get as physical books so that I can get them signed by the author (e.g., The Greatest Show on Earth), or loan out (e.g., Letter to a Christian Nation). Some books I want as audio-books. Some books I get in more than one format. I’m glad to have the extra option, and I don’t want any of those three options to go away. But I think a longer lasting format than acid-free paper would be to carve the text into granite, but that would be far less portable.

    Like

  8. The only downside to the e-book is the lack of share-ability. Plus my wife complains that she can’t tell what I’m reading or where I am in the book..she likes to anticipate my reactions to stuff she’s passed on to me to read.
    Apart from that the only place a physical book is more useful to me than an e-version is the Building Code…mostly again for the ease of sharing.

    Like

  9. I’m a librarian and customers often ask me how I feel about ebooks. Sometimes, instead of asking, they go ahead and tell me how I feel: “You’re a librarian. You must hate ebooks.”
    I tell them two things:
    1. I am not in the business of books. I’m in the business of knowledge. I don’t care how knowledge is stored, retrieved and disseminated, as long as it is.
    2. I’m always sitting in front of a computer, of course. I point to my computer and then I hold up the pen that hangs around my neck. I say, “I use a computer all the time, but I can’t live without my pen. We’re not losing paper based books. We’re adding ebooks.”

    Like

  10. I’m split, too.As long as I just read along, eBooks are great. I love not having to carry a whole book around, but just a flat tablet thingo. I don’t care about the smell and whatever romantic properties of paper books, and I’m actually glad when they don’t take up space on the already full shelf.
    But I do care about the great property of being able to flick back and forth between a few places in a book very quickly and without a distracting interactive technical process (just by using my fingers as bookmarks), and to search something by layout or just quick sampling when I only know what I’m looking for by topic (or figure, or where it was on the page) but not by a specific search-friendly phrase. Doing all of this is a pain with my Kindle, and the speed with which it reacts to my inputs is just abysmal.
    Maybe one day it will be possible to solve this with good readers and a good interface. Until then, I prefer to have textbooks in both electronic and paper.

    Like

  11. I heartily agree with the peole who are pointing out that when you purchase an ebook you don’t actually own it.
    Remember, however that with a tool like Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com) and some plugins you can remove the DRM from ebooks, so that should you choose to switch from Kindle to Kobo to Apple (No!) then you can take your books with you.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s