How I Came Around on eBooks
In the past week, I have heard two authors, Maurice Sendak and Jonathan Franzen, come out against eBooks, with Franzen suggesting “serious readers” prefer paper. Both authors commented that they couldn’t imagine a future where eBooks were popular, but they supposed it didn’t matter because they would be dead. I don’t want to respond too much to their comments specifically. Sendak didn’t give much explanation for his reasoning and Franzen seems to have confused eBooks with eBooks sold by a particular vendor that maintains access to your copy after you buy it (or license it or whatever is technically legally happening with that transaction), which is not a problem with the medium itself but rather with that particular vendor’s implementation of it. Taking a stand against propietary formats that lack permanence is great, but different from being against eBooks as a whole.
I have noticed that anti-eBook sentiment is common, however. A friend of mine got a hard copy book for Christmas and launched into an unprovoked rant against eBooks and how physical books were so much better. The same seemed to be true in the comments following Sendak’s interview. “Right on,” people said. “I love paper books and have not ever read an eBook, nor will I.”
Wait, what? If you have never read an eBook, how do you know it’s a terrible experience? I get that eReaders are expensive, so it’s not like it’s something you just pick up at the corner store on the off-chance that it may be for you (If you have tried an eReader and it wasn’t for you, fair enough). I actually consider the expense and barrier to buying them the biggest argument against eBooks if we’re setting things up as a paper vs electrons choice. Affordable $4 paperbacks or near-infinite selection at the local library for anyone with proper identification are one of the greatest things about paper books. Anyone can access them; not so for eReaders.
I get that people love paper books. I have been there. I still am there in many situations. But to try to extrapolate from that to what it is like to read on an eReader without actually having read on an eReader and pass judgement on people who choose to read that way seems…unfair? Over-controlling? Really lacking in perspective? So I thought I would share my experience becoming a reader of eBooks as a reminder to people to stay open-minded. There is enough snobbery around books and their content without criticising readers who choose a different format as well.
I read a lot as a kid, mostly genre stuff, sci-fi, fantasy and mysteries. I would re-read things I loved, wrecking the bindings. I would finish every book, even things I didn’t like because to do otherwise seemed wasteful. I sorted my books, by genre and then by author last name, on my shelves and I insisted that none of them could be sold in any of the yard sales we had growing up, even the ones I hadn’t really liked and would never read again. Getting rid of them seemed wrong to me somehow.
As I grew older, I expanded a bit into literary fiction. I found much of it wasn’t really my thing, although I don’t regret doing it because some of it I really loved and it also led me to a lot of interesting non-fiction. But the experience also changed my approach to reading. Even when I had been reading just genre stuff, I knew there was too much out there to finish, but the general fiction section of the bookstore is bigger than all of these other sections together. And a lot of this stuff was not really grabbing me. Perhaps it would later, when I grew up a bit, but I sort of decided that life was too short to be reading things I couldn’t get into after more than 100 pages or so. I had become unafraid to abandon books. I also stopped re-reading things, at least in full, although I would dog-ear pages I particularly liked and come back to those sections. I even began to admit that perhaps the book situation was starting to overtake my room in my parents’ house and some might need to go.
Then I went away to University. And dorm rooms? They are tiny. What’s more, I was in a co-op program, so I moved around from place to place every four months. It was like that George Carlin routine. I selected just the essentials from my parents’ house to take to school-Sherlock Holmes and Carol Nelson Douglas, my Austen collection, everything I have by William Goldman, Journeys in Wonderland (because, hey, you never know), and whatever unread stuff I thought I would need to make it until Christmas (just slightly overestimated at 50 or so books). Everything else stayed at my parents. Co-op time rolled around and I had a job in Ottawa. It was only four months, so I packed up about half my books in a box and put them in the basement so they weren’t in the way of the girl I sublet to. I took the remaining books with me to Ottawa. On the bus ride to work, I brought a book along in my backpack. Well, maybe two, just in case. Books all over the province. I really wish there had been a way to travel lighter then.
I’m situated a bit more permanently for grad school, but most of the books I left at my parents’ are still there, burdening them while I get no use out of them and, in fact, don’t even miss them. It’s true that some of the paper books I have here with me, I peek at now and again: I checked out The Final Problem before I went to Switzerland and visited Reichenbach; and of course Austen is completely re-readable. But it’s pretty much time to admit to myself that I am not ever going to finish Beyond Good and Evil. I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought it and the real estate it takes up in my tiny apartment could be put to much better use. And this can really be said of most of the books I own. I already have a bunch set aside to sell or give away at some point.
And it was this crunch for space that led me to start considering an eReader. I wasn’t keen on the idea. I loved physical books and I declared it as loudly as many of the people I hear still doing it now. But I had stopped going to the bookstore and was on a “book diet”, only reading things I had owned for ages and not read or going to the library (and re-discovering the library was also a great part of deciding not to own paper books anymore; why did I ever stop going?). I liked flipping the pages. I liked how light they were to hold in bed while reading. I liked how low-tech they were so you could pack them up and take them anywhere. Then my parents got me an eReader for Christmas, ending months of internal debate about it (technically an iPad, but I use it mostly as an eReader and to count knitting rows). I skimmed the free books available: all the Austens, some Edith Wharton, the Oz books (I had never even owned those; just checked them out from the library as a kid over and over and over again), Middlemarch.
I dove in and started reading. As it turned out, I did not miss turning pages. At all. I did find it a bit heavy and awkward to hold while lying down at first, but it could be propped up against the wall without the need to hold the pages open. Not holding pages also allows knitting simple things while reading, btw, although I’m sure Franzen would hate that sort of multitasking. And the best part was that it could be packed up and taken on-the-go and I would have all kinds of books with me, which is handy because I tend to have multiple books on the go, at least one fiction and one non-fiction. Now I could read whatever grabbed me at the time.
A couple of months ago, I woke up to the fire alarm in my building. I assumed it was yet another false alarm, since we had been having a run of them, but when I looked out the window, there were flames. I grabbed my backpack and ran toward the far stairs, which I thought were furthest from the source. The fire turned out to be about 6 or 7 floors below me (and everyone got out safely), but when I saw the flames, I thought I might already be too late to make it safely down the stairs. I thought there was no time and I didn’t stop to grab anything except my backpack right in front of me. Because all those things? They are just things. Yes, even books. People love to Romanticize books. I still do it myself. “Oh, yes, I remember that lonely co-op semester when I finished Infinite Jest, tucked away in my room in the suburbs. Let me just pull it out and re-read that part where Day rants at Lenz to get a watch. Oh, it’s fallen open right to it because I’ve wrecked the binding.” I love that book and it’s deeply associated with those four months for me. If there is any way I can keep that specific copy, I will. But the truth is that hard copy books are physical objects made of paper, while the experience you had reading them, special as it may have been, is in your mind, not part of that physical object. And so the experience of reading an eBook is not that different. At least for me.
Other great things to consider about eBooks
You can gift them to people over long distances almost instantly. This gift could be either a gift card, or a specific book.
I finished Wool 3 at about 2 am and was able to buy the next book in the series right then for 99 cents.
I also wanted to start reading comics, which you can do on an iPad without the awkwardness of going to a comic book store. I’ve only found a few that I like, but a lot of first issues were available for free so it was a great way for someone new to browse a lot of titles without pressure.
You can highlight and make notes, then go back and look just at your notes. Of course, some people do this with hard copy books, but I never did (just dog ears). I have no qualms about doing it with an eBook though, because I know I can strip those things out later if I want and I won’t have ruined the book.
I already discussed the expense of eReaders above. Presumably eBooks themselves could become quite cheap at some point since they don’t have to be physically shipped and strategies for promoting them are quite different, but there is likely some lower bound on the price of eReaders given the hardware involved.
Skimming a book. Over the weekend, I went to the used bookstore and bought a guidebook for Australia because paging through things on an eReader is not yet convenient for long works (also because most vendors don’t deal well with pictures yet). However, I don’t think it is impossible to improve this. Part of the problem is the interface, where the line on the bottom doesn’t exactly correspond to the distance through the book because the current chapter is “zoomed in” on that line. So trying to skip ahead 25 pages in a 200 page book doesn’t necessarily mean you move 1/8 the length of the line. But I can imagine some sort of gesture mechanism where swiping with one finger moves you ahead one page, swiping with two fingers moves you 20, three fingers 50 or whatever. Another problem is reading words on the pages you’re skipping. Presumably some sort of “skim” feature could be added that would help with this, like the fast forward on a DVD. Currently, I navigate a lot using the things I’ve highlighted or made notes on.
Browsability of eBook stores. I am a browser. I go to the real world book store with no particular book in mind and just wander until something catches my attention or I think of an author I haven’t checked out in a while. The eBook stores I’ve been to have some divisions by genre, but typically they list the new releases first and browsing from page to page is not the greatest. They also email you lists of books you might like, which are essentially new releases and popular stuff from genres you’ve already bought from them. I buy very few books browsing the store (I can actually only think of one). I’m much more likely to browse the library or physical bookstore then go online to see if any of the eBook stores have it, or else meander around online for recommendations from people in forums. Getting recommendations from a computer algorithm makes me uncomfortable and I feel there’s less opportunity to chance upon hidden gems and more of a tendency to be pigeonholed into a genre.
With the exception of price, I don’t think these problems are insurmountable and they are really more just part of eBooks being somewhat new. I doubt there will be a world without physical books on paper anytime soon. As far as I know, readers of eBooks haven’t suggested there should be. But there are all kinds of situations where eBooks have worked well for me. Seriously.