3 Comments

In Defense of Ebooks

Benedict Cumberbatch eyerollE-reading isn’t reading,” Slate declared yesterday. Oh, well, thanks for the info, guys. Glad someone finally made a ruling on that.

As usual, the headline is hyperbolic linkbait and the article is somewhat more moderate, but it’s just another version of the same old paean to the feel of a book—the heft, the smell, the susurrus of turning pages. And as usual, I reply: Oh, puh-leeze.

I mean, I love those things too. Of course I do. Every reader does. I’ve spent many bright summer afternoons happily puttering around the twilight interior of a used-book shop, inhaling scents and caressing bindings. I’ve felt the satisfying weight of a novel promising many hours of good reading ahead, and tested the thin fan of pages under my right thumb to gauge how much longer I can remain engrossed in another world. I’ve gazed fondly on my books arrayed around me, gently unfolded the dog ears of a library book, taken delight in the marginalia of a previous owner, sheepishly wiped ink from my face after an impromptu nap, and pressed books still warm from my fevered reading into the hands of friends.

But I have also lugged dozens of boxes full of hundreds of books up countless stairs. I have bought a score of bookcases and gotten rid of other furniture to accommodate them. I’ve stacked books on every horizontal surface in my house. I’ve sat restlessly in waiting rooms, fingers drumming on the cover of a just-finished book. I’ve waited a year or more after publication to read a book I refuse to pay hardcover prices for. I’ve waited weeks for pre-ordered, back-ordered, special-ordered, wait-listed books to arrive in my local bookstore or library. I’ve been intrigued by books after skimming a few pages while standing by the shelves, only to realize after buying them that I hated them or, worse, already owned them. I’ve struggled to prop up heavy books while at the beach or in bed; I’ve been knocked on the bridge of the nose by books slipping from my grasp as I try to turn pages; I’ve cut short reading sessions because my thumbs gave out; I’ve been subjected to paper cuts and sneezing fits and muscle aches for my reading habit.

Books are wonderful and I adore them. But I’ve been on the e-reader bandwagon for 3 years now—first a Kindle, now a Nook—and I adore those too. They make books cheaper, more portable, easier to store. They make it easier to keep track of books people have recommended to me and to scoop up another the moment I finish the one before. They allow me to read in more places—lying supine in bed, as a straphanger on a crowded train, while waiting in line. E-readers aren’t perfect, of course: Their books are still difficult to lend, their battery life is not unlimited, and technically you don’t really own the books they contain, so the retailer or publisher can revoke your purchases without warning. And of course, although the books are often cheaper than their paper counterparts, the e-readers, even the basic ones, cost as much as 4 or 5 new hardcovers. For me, the problems of ebooks are outweighed by their benefits. I still do about half my reading on paper—because some of my to-be-read pile dates from several years ago and because I still can’t pass up a good used-book store or library sale—but I try to buy ebooks whenever possible.

I’m not bothered by people who don’t like ebooks, though. I’m not really trying to sell them on a new way of reading. I think, by now, most people understand the benefits of digital books. If those aren’t enough to tempt you over, well, so be it. But people who don’t like ebooks seem to be bothered by me. At parties, in newspapers, on blogs, paper-book advocates seem eager to explain why they love the book as physical artifact, as if the rest of us aren’t aware of or have forgotten these earthly pleasures. The Slate writer mentioned above talks about the book as the “foundation of Western humanistic learning for the [past] 1,500 years,” as if da Vinci could not have learned anatomy on an iPad, as if Galileo would not have had an easier time publishing his findings if he didn’t need a press, as if digital backups would not have preserved now-lost works when the Library of Alexandria burned. As if, indeed, the book itself has not changed radically in the past 1,500 years—abandoning hand copying for the printing press, abandoning vellum for paper, abandoning leather bindings for cardboard, abandoning individual illuminations for unadorned mass production, and overall becoming smaller, cheaper, lighter, more portable, and more accessible to the masses. Which, of course, are the very same benefits that ebooks offer.

The book did not spring from the hand of god in the form that was most common when you were a child; it has been evolving for centuries. Nor is the book disappearing—paper books still make up 85% of the market, despite a huge surge in the number of ebooks sold in the last few years. So the next time you’re considering boring an audience with a 3,000-word rhapsody to the sensation of an overladen bookstore bag bumping against your knee, please consider instead merely repeating “I hate change” for as long as it takes to fill up the space.

Especially if you’re running an all-digital publication. I mean, come on, Slate. Seriously?

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3 comments on “In Defense of Ebooks

  1. You captured my thoughts on the subject exactly. I’ve become a fan of audio books out of necessity, but still love the rare opportunity of reading with a book in hand, turning the pages. Both are wonderful avenues for learning and escape. I have boxed and hauled my books all over the country and every time swear I will give half of them away, but I can’t let them go. Thanks for your reason and perspective on the topic!

  2. It took me a while to get on the ebook bandwagon, mostly due to the cost of the readers themselves (and a lack of books I actually wanted to read being available in ebook format). I still love the physical sensation involved in reading a “real” book. When I was a kid I would wait in the library before school started and I would often just smell the pages of the older books. And I spent years working in a bookstore. To this day I still do occasionally take a good sniff, and there are still books that I feel HAVE to be bought in a physical form, but I have no hesitation at all in buying ebooks for my Kindle when it comes to “casual” reading. The benefit of having immediate access to dozens of books with the weight of half a mass market far outweighs the loss of that tangible experience when I’m reading just for the enjoyment of the story.

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