Friday, July 20, 2012

The continuing saga of the year of the e-book

by Scott Rhoades

I've posted about my gradual conversion to e-books before, but it's been a while. I now feel like I've read enough of them to be able to write somewhat coherently about the (nonsensical) battle of the book vs the e-book.

First of all, let me say that I no longer draw a line between e-books and "real" books like I once did. The words are the same regardless of the medium, and the experience of consuming the words is similar enough, that any thoughts I once had about e-books somehow being less real have vanished. As far as reading goes, they are just as real as paperbacks or hardbacks.

When I started the year with my new Nook Color, a Christmas present from my wife, I expected to read about 35-40 books in 2012, based on my reading history over the past few years since I started keeping track. I read 42 last year, 15 of them on my iPad. The rest were printed.

Right now, I am nearing the halfway point of my 31st book of the year. I think four of those have been printed books. The Nook is a major reason why I've read so much. It's easy to have around and comfortable to hold, especially for big books. I can carry an entire library with me, between the Nook's memory and its memory card. I've even switched my favorite magazine to a digital subscription. It's easy to read without losing the sense of the magazine's design, and I don't have to deal with piles of past issues. I can read with the lights out (although I don't do that much). I can adjust the font size for more comfortable reading, and adjust the brightness of the screen for comfort in whatever lighting I'm sitting in.

That last bit shouldn't be underestimated. One of my friends, who used to be an avid reader, had all but given up on reading because his aging eyes required perfect lighting and a reasonable font size. He bought his wife a Nook Color, tried reading on it, and ended up buying another one for his wife because he took hers over. Now he reads a lot again.

Clearly, this little device has its advantages, But what about disadvantages?

I'm sure there were people who complained when mass-produced books from printing presses replaced the carefully and lovingly made manuscripts of yore. Book lovers (and I consider myself one of them) always talk about how they prefer the feel of a book, the smell of the pages, the tactile pleasures of the printed book. You don't get that from a reader. I have a leather cover for mine that gives it a cozier feel than the hard plastic of the bare e-reader. It helps, but it's not the same. While the Nook is more comfortable to read in bed than a thick book or a large-format book, it can't compete with most books in the coziness battle. This has really become obvious to me in recent months after I inherited some books that belonged to my grandmother and my aunt, who both died in the past year. I pick up those books, several of which were read to me when I was very small, and I can smell Grandma's house. Those books are treasures, for reasons far beyond the wonderful words they contain. Nobody is going to get excited about inheriting my e-book collection when my time comes. Some of my printed books might mean something to somebody, though.

I love my bookshelves. I have shelves in three rooms, all overstuffed with books, too many to fit standing upright, so there are books lying on top of books. Sometimes I like to rearrange the books on the shelf. Sometimes I discover myself standing in front of shelves, just looking at the books. I do this is other people's homes as well. Some people sneak a peek at medicine cabinets. I'm drawn to book shelves. My Nook has a shelf feature to help with organizing, but it's kind of a pain and doesn't have anything like the emotional draw of a well-crammed bookshelf. The Nook shelves have one advantage. You can put one book on multiple shelves. That's kind of cool. But it's nothing like a real shelf.

I also like that, in a real book, I can track the progress of my bookmark through the pages. You can sort of do that with an e-book, but again, it's not the same. The biggest difference is that you can't leave your bookmark where you started your session and then look at how far you've read before you move your marker. I use bookmarks to mark my starting point as much as my stopping point. And I love bookmarks. Whether they are store-bought bookmarks, gifts from my kids, or whatever object I happen to find, a bookmark is a wonderful thing. And I love looking for bookmarks. Sporting event tickets, concert tickets, baseball cards, whatever. I'm always on the lookout for a good bookmark. I have a mug full of them on my nightstand. My favorites lately have been BART tickets. Anybody who spends time in the San Francisco Bay Area probably recognizes that BART tickets are the right size and thickness for a bookmark, and that the two sides and the arrow are perfect for helping you find your place. When I ride BART, I always pay an extra nickel for my fare so I will have a new bookmark. (For those who don't know, the turnstiles keep the tickets when you've paid the exact fare, but if you've paid extra, it gives you the ticket back so you can add to it. Or use it as a bookmark.)

Finally, the thing I've noticed lately about e-books after sailing through them like I have this year, is how much I miss the difference between each book. Every book feels the same on my Nook. Thick, thin, heavy, light, textured, smooth--those differences between volumes don't change. I can't remember where a favorite passage is by it's location in the book. The writing style changes, but other than that, all books are the same. I miss the feel of a different book after I've finished one. The e-books have no real unique substance of their own, like a printed book. This is where I come closest to feeling like an e-book is somehow less real.

So, what does this all mean? I don't see myself going back to reading exclusively (or even mostly) printed books. I like the convenience, and getting older means that the control I have over font size and lighting is a big deal. I really am a convert to e-books.

At the same time, I love my printed books, for all the reasons I mentioned. The actual objects mean something. To use a much overused expression, you'll have to pry my books from my cold, dead hands. But the same is true of my e-reader. Or at least, until it breaks or the battery gives out. (That's another thing. A worn out book, even if it's ripped and pages are missing, can still have value, like some of Grandma's books. A busted e-reader is a dead hunk of plastic and glass.)

Bottom line is, regardless of how it is often argued, this is not an either-or proposition. It is possible to enjoy both e-books and printed books, loving each for its own advantages. The words are the same, and what I get out of each book is essentially the same. There is room in my life for multiple kinds of books, and I'm thrilled to live in a time when I not only have the choice but can choose both.  

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