The Epic Battle of Books Vs. Ebooks

September 19, 2011 § 12 Comments

As a book lover, I’m often asked my opinion on the ebook versus traditional book debate. Am I not thrilled by the ease and convenience of carrying around 320 books at once wherever I go in the world whether that’s to the far reaches of Tajikistan or to my toilet? Isn’t the story the same whether on screen or on paper? Do I think the onslaught of cheap ebooks will devastate the publishing industry? (Ok, no one’s yet asked me this, but I have an opinion nonetheless.) Do I want a Nook for my birthday? (No.)

I will admit, handling a book is a large part of my reading experience. As I wrote previously, stumbling over physical books makes me pick them up to read and the presence of books cheers me up. There’s the mustiness of old books and the crispness of new ones. I like the physical knowledge of progressing through a book and seeing how much is left (which also helps me decide if I should finish it up or put it down and go to sleep), and of holding a book someone else loved: the underlined sentences, the dirt and food stains, the crumpled page corners and familiar creases. We readers leave our marks on books, and we share that part of ourselves with the next reader.

Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, sums up my feelings:

I am very grateful to the electronic world for making my life easier, but there is something about holding a book — the smell and the world of association. Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love.

And  it’s not just that I like to touch books; I like to see other people handling books too. Or rather, I like to eavesdrop on what other people are reading in waiting rooms and coffee shops. I’ve fleetingly met a few kindred spirits this way who share the same literary tastes. This spying is terribly hard to do electronically. Unless we’re friends and they leave frequent Facebook status updates:

  • Wish Heathcliff would stop being a drama queen and just damn apologize already!
  • Stayed up all night with Katniss. Still hasn’t chosen Peeta.
  • Sho’nuff, too distracted by a white author’s rendition of southern Black domestic help.

Besides my own preferences, there are a few things I think we lose with ebooks. One of them is the role of book covers and browsing. As The Guardian writes, we indeed judge books by their covers and there is an art to them (check out these cheesy science fiction covers here or GalleyCat’s infographic to decode women’s books by their cover here). We browse the bookstore visually first. This isn’t impossible to do electronically, but it is harder. Online browsing is cluttered with ads, and we browse differently, urged on by Amazon’s memory of our tastes.

Good E-Reader poses the idea that ebooks are changing the way we view ownership. Unable to lend or resell your ebooks, buying digital books more closely resembles borrowing from the library than owning. And it’s harder to keep in mind the file of books in your digital library than the piles of books in your home library.

Still, I’ve found good reasons to laud the ebook format. Ebooks could help out the declining publishing industry by learning from the music industry. They give away freebies to boost sales (who doesn’t gravitate towards free stuff? And if you like it, you’ll buy more), sell individual tracks (what if you could buy just the one essay or poem you wanted? You could build your own anthology. Or what if you could buy the first two chapters of a book to see if you like it in the first place?), include bonus tracks if you buy the CD (give incentives for buying books), and sell the more expensive vinyl format in conjunction with an mp3 download (you can have the beautiful book for your shelves and still have the more practical e-version for your trip to Tajikistan).

Seattle Pi suggests that ebooks could also bring back serial stories. Not only could we read authors such as Charles Dickens the way his contemporary audience read him (and in smaller chunks, one might even get through the 800+ pages of Little Dorrit), but new writers today could build the same engaged following as television shows have with their drawn out plots and cliffhangers. When Dickens published The Old Curiosity Shop, leaving little Nell’s life hanging in the balance, American readers crowded the edges of New York City’s piers for the last installment, asking the incoming sailors if Nell was still alive in the end. What writer wouldn’t want that in any format?

Perhaps this compromise is the best way to go.

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§ 12 Responses to The Epic Battle of Books Vs. Ebooks

  • I’ve picked up a few e-books lately, and most of all miss being able to highlight it in a way I can find my old learning’s quickly by leafing through the pages. My shelf is getting too full, but I think I may keep buying paper.

    • My bookshelves are full too, yet still I pause over the books at yard sales, which I guess is another argument in favor of books. Ebooks are cheap, but 50 cents yard sale cheap is hard to come by elsewhere.

  • e says:

    Is this even a contest? You’re right, nothing beats holding an actual book. Especially if it’s old and the pages crackle. Plus, who hasn’t enjoyed a childhood of memories where someone tossed them a book and said, “Hey, check this out”?

    • I hadn’t even thought about that. Being handed a book by someone you trust is a very powerful thing indeed. It makes me think I need to do some more handing out of books myself and pass the love on.

  • kay krejcarek says:

    Abi, Billy Collins writes a poem called “Marginalia”. I think he would be a fan of paper books. For myself, while I wouldn’t turn down a Kindle, I agree wholeheartedly with you–there’s something so comforting about seeing my bookshelf full of books….and the boxes of books next to it that don’t fit….and the pile on my bedside table….and the stack by the door….and the two on the kitchen table…..:)

  • ahope27 says:

    I don’t have to give this issue a second thought! Real books all the way! What is nicer than the thrill of the hunt in a second hand book store, finding a hidden treasure beneath a stack of dusty serial romances? Or the personal touches you find in a second hand book, like person thoughts written in the margins, the odd love note, and of course, the previous owner’s name plastered on the inside cover? I love the mystery of it all! Can you even buy a second hand e-book? If you could, would it carry the same legacy? Plus my eyes hurt from reading on a screen too long!

  • Terry says:

    kindred spirits all.

  • Laura Mettler says:

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/257719/december-01-2009/sherman-alexie

    This is a great clip with more reasons to love real books (or fear the electronic kind) and to love Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert.

    • This is too great–I don’t think I’ve heard Alexie speak before (he’s so personable! And he certainly held his own with Colbert, which is sometimes hard to do). I like his point about reading locally too. And it’s interesting his comparison to the music industry, that now musicians make all their money from shows, but there’s no parallel of that for writers. They give readings, sure, but they’re not performers. They write in private and their art is consumed usually privately as well. Hmm…much to think about.

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