Friday, January 6, 2012

The Word vs The Thing

By Scott Rhoades

2011 was the year I discovered that, as much as I love books as objects and as much as the physical object is part of the comfort of reading, I enjoy ebooks. The first one I read was on my phone. I expected to hate it, but I was hanging out at the airport, waiting for my daughter to arrive, and I gave it a try. Even on the little screen, having several books in my pocket was pretty cool, and the reading experience wasn't bad. Then I got an iPad from work, and that was that. Of the 40 books I read last year, 15 were ebooks. Two years ago I expressed my disdain for ebooks in comments on a couple blogs. Once I tried them though, I learned something.

What I learned should not have been a surprise. As much as I love the feel and smell of a book, It's the words that made me love reading as a kid. That is what I love most about reading now.

To be sure, curling up with an iPad is not the same. It's a cool gadget-on-roids, but it's heavy and awkward, and not that comfortable to hold, especially with one hand, a big deal the last six weeks of the year, when I've been one-handed due to arm surgery. You can't really hold the iPad in one hand, and you certainly can't curl up with it.

Of course, the iPad, isn't the only, or the best, ereader in town. Kindles and Nooks are much smaller and more comfortable to hold, even the newer tablet-style readers. I've resisted those readers for a while because of the number of books you can buy for the price of the reader. But because I have enjoyed ebooks so much this year, I asked for a Nook for Christmas, and was thrilled to get a Nook Color.

And guess what, I can actually curl up with it, and hold it in one hand. It doesn't have the same warm comfort as a worn paperback, but the physical object itself is enjoyable. Of course, the words are the most important thing, and they are comfortable to read on my new gadget. As for the price, well, so many books are available for free or in collections of 20-80 books for between 99 cents and 3.99. I read a lot of classics, so those collections have more than made up the difference between the price of the screen and the books I could buy for that money.

Of course, I still love books, and books I want to keep will be bought and squeezed on to my shelves, consigning other books to the boxes in the closet. But there are a lot of books I want to read that I don't care about showing or storing in my dwindling space. The words and stories are what I love the most, and they are the same in whichever media.

Now that I've seemingly gone to the dark side (or the backlit side), I should mention something else.

A couple days after Christmas I got a box containing books full of classic children's stories. Those books had been in my Grandma's homes all my life. Grandma died in July at the age of 92. My aunt knows how much I love books, and that I read from this set when I was much younger, so she gave them to me. I opened the first volume and was overwhelmed with a variety of emotions. It stll smelled like the room in her house in San Jose where I used to sleep as a wee bairn. I'll never get that experience from bits on a screen. Ever.

So it's not an either/or thing. The stories are why I read, but there's so much emotion attached to special books, whether they remind you of Grandma or of the time and place where you bought them, or where you were in your life when you read them.

What this all means is that I have room in my life for both types of reading experience. I can enjoy them both for their own benefits. I will never give up my books. But I'll also never give up the joy of carrying a library in a convenient and comfortable reading device. I love both the words and the multiple ways those words can be consumed these days.

There's really only one conclusion I can come to: it's a good time to be a reader.


Julie Daines said...

I've done a lot of reading on both, and I have to say, I'm still a book girl. I do read frequently on my iPad or Kindle, but in the end, I feel better with a book in my hand.

Part of that is due to the fact that I mark up my books a lot with a pencil. And yes, I know you can make notes and highlight on and iPad--and I do--but it's not as easy or convenient or gratifying.

I totally get what you're saying about your grandma's books. My grandma used to always read me this big, beautifully illustrated Snow White book. When she passed away, I stole the book from her house. Every time I open it I can hear her voice and see her reading to me. You definitely don't get that on an e-reader.

Scott said...

Books rule. No doubt about it. But there's another thing about e-readers that I left out. Because so many dusty classics are available for nothing or next to nothing, I'm reading some cool old stuff I might never have read if I had to buy the books, works I'm curious about, but don't want to buy or store and that I might not seek out at the library. I can try it, either in a cheap collection or free download, or the free sample available from Barnes & Noble. If I don't like it, there was little investment of time or effort. Chances are I never even left my room. And if I love love love it, I can buy the book. Because, let's face it, the other problem with ebooks (and MP3s and streaming movies) is that the media is not physically real. It's so disposable that it doesn't even leave a trace after you get rid of it. I guess that's good for the environment, but it turns art into vapor and makes it somehow matter less, since it has no real matter.