The question of e-books

In which I wax slightly lyrical on my love of books, but eventually return to the main point.

I was having a bit of trouble picking a topic for this post, so I turned to WordPress’s handy Daily Post blog for help. The weekly writing challenge this week is about ebooks–specifically, the ongoing question of whether we readers prefer e-books or a good old-fashioned paperback. I think it’s interesting that despite the fact that all of us who looked at and responded to this prompt are obviously in touch with technology (being on a blogging site and all), the poll still falls enormously in favor of old-fashioned, paper books. For all the convenience of e-readers, many of us seem to still prefer the feel of a paper book, even if it is heavier to lug around.

I myself fall with the majority on this one (are we really surprised?). There’s something about holding a book, flipping through the pages, feeling the solid weight of it. Physical books are individual objects, and they collect memories like any other object. When I open my copy of any given book, I remember when I bought it, or who gave it to me. Sometimes I have memories of where I was or what I was doing when I read a specific part. Sometimes it’s just the memory of a particular atmosphere or time of year–Dandelion Wine will always be a book for summer and hammocks; Cloud Atlas brings back the light of early November and the smell of coffee from the Starbucks in the Almaden Barnes and Noble.

I get to know the particular feel of my copy of a book, the sound the spine makes when it opens, so that if I ever read a different copy of that book, it feels kind of weird, even if the story is exactly the same. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, it was my dad’s old copies that he bought in the 70s, when paperbacks were still about $1. The pages are yellowed and the type is thick and old-looking, and I will never be able to read The Lord of the Rings in any other form. When I get my own copies I’m going to have to try to find some used set with yellow pages, because any modern copy will feel strange.

E-books, bless them, just don’t have that individuality. They’re all the same–the same weight, the same font, the same size. You don’t pick an e-book from your library or the store just because of how it feels. You can’t browse the Nook store and grab a random book just because it’s the sort of book you like to hold in your hands. You kind of have to already know what you want.

BUT, if you do know what you want, then an e-reader can be a really excellent, really convenient way to read in situations when you wouldn’t want to bring a big fat book. Despite the above ode (and I realize I rambled a bit; I just really like books, okay?), my love of books doesn’t mean I hate e-readers.

I wonder sometimes why we feel we have to take unequivocal sides on this issue. I got a Nook for Christmas this year, and although I don’t think it’s ever going to replace my bookshelves, I did find myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. I discovered some compilations of classic novels for 99 cents in the Nook store, so now I have something like 50 classic books stored on my e-reader, many of which I’ve never read, but might actually now that they’re easily accessible. I also was able to put a Word document of a friend’s story on my Nook, so I can read it just like any other book. I even checked out a book from my library’s e-book collection.

The point is, people talk about “switching” to ebooks and “giving up” hardcovers, but I see no reason that using one should preclude the use of the other. It seems to me that ebooks would get a much more friendly reception if we thought of them as a supplement, or simply a different, more convenient way of reading books (much like paperbacks were to hardbacks when they first came out), rather than some new, be-all-end-all form that is intent on exterminating books as we know them.

I think it’s pretty obvious that paper books aren’t going anywhere just yet. There are too many people like those who voted on the Daily Post’s poll that still prefer the heft of a thick book, the smell of the pages, the ability to amble through a bookstore for hours, letting your eyes wander the shelves waiting for something to catch your eye. But those same people might also enjoy the convenience of being able to bring three books on a trip in a device that weighs less than a paperback, or being able to have all their textbooks in one place.

I love physical books and I’ll always prefer them to e-books. But I don’t think it’s a betrayal of that love to own an e-reader. Reading is reading, no matter what, and if e-readers get more people reading, I say more power to them. I’m just not getting rid of my bookshelves anytime soon.

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2 thoughts on “The question of e-books

  1. I’m in the same boat. I have an e-reader, and I like it, but I also own literally thousands of paper copies of books. I, too, am looking for a copy of The Hobbit like the one my mother read to me when I was a wee lass.

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