Thursday, December 29, 2011

The e-Reader Debate

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and is still reveling in holiday spirit.  This is my favorite time of year, and I wish you all have some of the joy I have been feeling.  And while things have been extremely busy in my life lately, I have not given up on this blog.  I hope to come back with new energy in January!

But before we discuss specific books and authors again, I want to open a little debate.  I imagine that the Kindle was a popular present this year, and since so many of you love reading, it's likely that you received one (or another kind of e-reader).  However, many book lovers are resisting the emergence of e-readers out their loyalty to books.  I know this because I was once staunchly opposed to reading tablets. 

I love books.  Let me make that as clear as possible.  There is nothing that compares to holding a book in your hands and feeling the significance in its weight.  I love turning pages forward to feel the progress I'm making but also flipping back to ones I've already read to find the connections.  (Or when I'm reading Russian works, I need to flip back to remember all the names!)  I like penciling in notes in the margins or underlining a passage I want to be able to quickly find again.  I adore antique books that have soft leather covers and that delightful musty smell of old pages.  Some of my most prized possessions are volumes I have from the 1800s, such as my first-edition copy of The Portrait of a Lady.  A reading tablet could never be a legitimate substitute for something like that.

Another objection I had to Kindles was a commercial they had on TV.  In it, a guy and a girl have a short "debate" about Kindles versus books.  I can hardly bring myself to call it a debate because the arguments are absolutely pathetic.  The only defense the girl offers for books is that she feels satisfaction turning down a page.  I don't think there's a single book lover who would say that is the primary reason he or she enjoys holding a book.  In fact, I imagine that many adament book lovers would never dream of damaging the page by folding it down.  I was so irritated with the completely inadequate defense of books that I formed a negative opinion of Kindles in general.

Thus, when my parents surprised me with a Kindle last spring, I was not thrilled with the gift.  I glared at the small tablet like it was my enemy, threatening the extinction of something I so greatly love.  I could barely muster a polite "thank you" for their generous and well-meaning gift, because I was waging this internal battle.  But since I now owned it, I reluctantly begin to play around with it and observe its capabilities.  In almost no time at all, I was hooked.

That's right, I am absolutely a fan of the Kindle.  I can't argue as adamantly for other e-Readers because this is the only one I really know.  But I now carry mine with me wherever I go.  By far, the most useful aspect of a Kindle for me has been reading it while I use public transportation.  When I get on the T, (subway in Boston), it can be so difficult to balance my purse, coffee, newspaper, and book, especially when I still need a free hand to hold on to the pole.  As you can imagine, I feel awfully clumsy when I try to use two hands to turn the pages and keep track of a bookmark to save my place.  With my Kindle, however, I can have my purse on my shoulder, tuck my coffee in the crook of my arm, and hold the Kindle with just one hand, leaving the other free to hold on for dear life.  I can also easily slip it in and out of my purse, which is too small to fit actual books but has plenty of room for my beloved Kindle.  Just think how many books you could have with you on vacation!

My other favorite feature is that you can download almost every classic for free.  You heard me - FREE.  I have not yet paid one penny to put a book on my Kindle, nor have I run out of memory space.  Now, it's a piece of cake to check out books that people recommend to me.  In just seconds, I can have a free copy in my hands that I don't have to worry about finding or returning to the library. 

Finally, the internet feature has been helpful to me.  It is certainly not the easiest internet browser, but it's functional.  Yet because I don't have internet on my phone, my Kindle has helped me out in a few tight spots.  If I want to do something fairly simple, like look up the weather, a restaurant's number, my email, etc., my Kindle does the job.  The iPad clearly has a much better internet system, and people unfamiliar with my Kindle tend to struggle with using the online feature.  But remember that the Kindle is designed for reading, and the internet is just a handy addition.

HOWEVER, I still love books, and I still believe that there is no replacement for them.  If I'm just sitting on the couch, I would rather read a physical book.  I miss being able to flip through past pages when I want to make a connection or check something out.  I miss penciling in notes for passages I want to be able to quickly reference.  I don't feel like I'm making as much progress when I am looking at a percentage number rather than feeling the weight shift as the finished pages surpass the ones yet to read.  And as I said earlier, I adore antique books with their soft leather covers, golden trim, and musty book scent.  A Kindle can't reproduce this, and thus it could never extinguish books.  But I've learned that it does have its advantages, and I can heartily recommend it, especially to those who use the subway!

But I want to hear from you!  What do you think of e-readers?  Do you like them?  Hate them?  Did you get one for Christmas?  Can you understand my internal struggle?  I look forward to your thoughts!


the Crow himself said...


Thanks for another great post!
I am always impressed by the way you manage to produce thoughtful comments on such interesting subjects, whether or not you're discussing a specific story.

The two things that I have found really helpful in considering the value of e-readers are historical perspective and a "don't knock it till you try it" willingness to suspend judgement.

I don't think we need to be experts in the history of the book to trace the evolution of written communication (and therefore, of written storytelling) through some major, technology-driven changes. The lineage of the paperback novel includes everything from scratched and painted pottery and cuneiform stamping on clay tablets to scrolls (used everywhere from Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia), Roman wax tablets (the codex seed) and the gorgeous illuminated manuscripts produced by monastic communities in the middle ages. When the printing press came along, followed by moveable type, things leapt forward like never before and written communication took a sharp turn in the direction of today's mass media. Pamphlets, letters, and books flew around the literate world in previously impossible volumes.
Like you, I love the printed book, but even briefly considering its origins allows me to see e-readers and e-books with a little less suspicion, although I still occasionally have episodes of mother-bear-protecting-her-cubs-ism. When I remember that there was a time in which printing a book was considered by some to be economically dangerous, aesthetically unpleasant, in bad taste and insipidly subversive, most of my arguments against e-books fall a bit flat. The point is, I think, that using the best information technology at our disposal to create and share stories and ideas has been, on the whole, a very very good thing for readers.

I started reading e-books during my undergraduate studies. Maybe "using" would actually be a better term than "reading", as I started primarily in order to take advantage of things like electronically searchable text and instant copying. Before a couple of papers and a couple of grades were saved by a quick word search through Yvain and Wuthering Heights, I probably would have said there was very little value in having an electronic copy of a book that was already sitting on my shelf. Eventually, though, once I was comfortable reading from a screen and grabbing my classics online, and joined my physical library on the "Favorite Places to Visit" list, particularly when I wanted to grapple with a text academically.

The difference in experience between reading from a screen and reading from a page is huge, of course, and you're right about that stemming from the senses. Weight and scent and diffusion of light. Textures and colors and physical craftsmanship. Interaction is different. The time and care it takes to read, the concentration, are different. It's true. But one result of the rise in popularity of e-readers is that some publishers are taking greater pains to make print books that are absolutely beautiful or that take advantage of their physicality in new ways. Some of the new printings of canonical works are pretty exciting (, while some new books are coming right out of the gate with what might be called "higher production values" ( Because I love a beautiful book, I'm all in favor here.

Finally, here's a cool article that I ran across while searching around a bit. I find myself in this guy's camp.
In my mind, the competition between technologies is pushing printing into some fabulous new territory, and, along with all the other reasons that I like e-books and e-readers, I am thankful for that.

Julia Hones said...

I feel the same way. I love books but I also think that e-books are useful and necessary. I still read books and I have the kindle software in my laptop so I haven't bought a kindle yet. I know I can borrow one from my library if I want to. Eventually I will get it, but I am in no rush. Even if I had a kindle, I will continue reading physical books. I welcome technology but my love for physical books will never die, for sure.

Ben said...

Good debate subject.

I got a Kindle late in 2011, because I just feel we're getting there. As much as I like (and still buy some) paperbacks, paper is a finite ressource and at the pace mankind is trouncing through forests to accomodate the demand, well, it will become a luxury. I felt that getting an ereader was the right thing to do.

Also, it democratized the writing game a lot. Of course, there is a lot of crap in the Kindle store, but the community is a self-regulating entity. The good stuff sells and the bad stuff is left behind. Amazon with their publishing house Thomas and Mercer had also their way of scouting and signing talent. Guys like Vincent Zandri had their careers revived and great writers like John Rector, Johnny Shaw and Jay Stringer were given a chance despite writing a tough genre (noir). The game isn't rigged anymore for writers and that's because of the Kindle. These are things I can get behind!

Amy said...

I'm glad to see some interest in this topic. Carl, your thoughts are brilliant, as usual. I definitely find your perspective interesting as always.

Julia, I am happy to hear that you are faithful to physical books with an openness for ereaders. I encourage you to try the Kindle sometime; you can even borrow books from the library on your Kindle!

Ben, that's a great addition to the topic. I wasn't aware of the way ereaders were advocating for new writers. I agree that we should do whatever we can to encourage the continuation and preservation of literature.

steelsuzette said...

After this last cross-country trip with bags weighted by books, I find myself *almost* wanting a Kindle.

What I would definitely want: a journal version. Something that allowed you to write on the screen (not type!), and save your entry in any number of different 'journals' on the device. I don't know if screen technology is up to it yet, but this is something they should jump on.