Been catching up on my email, blogs, and whatnot, since I got back. I came across this post from AcidFreePulp, one of the blogs that I follow. It’s on the question on “real books” versus ebooks. I’ve been hearing this argument from several of my friends, a lot, lately. Friends who are writers tend to fall on the “paper forever!” side of the argument. Friends who are voracious readers (especially readers of genre fiction) tend to fall on the “how did I live without my Kindle?” side.
Me? I tend to fall in the middle. Since AcidFreePulp took the position for physical books, I’ll take the other side, just for fun.
First off, my husband and I between the two of us own a lot of books. Not as many as Umberto Eco owns, I’m sure, but still. The bookshelves are piled two levels deep, books bury our nightstands, they are stuffed under our bed, and there is a row of plastic bins in the garage, all full of more books. Plus, we both read comics — er, graphic novels — too. Periodically, we try to purge our holdings, but we just keep buying more. So the first advantage of ebooks:
I’m using the term loosely here. Define “trashy” however you like: romance, fantasy, thrillers, Twilight, James Patterson, superhero comics, Neil Gaiman. Whatever. The key attribute of trashy books, for this discussion, is that you consider them mind candy, you are reading them because you are too tired/stressed/keyed-up to read anything heavy, and you probably won’t read them again, until the next time you feel like mind candy. You read books like that, I read books like that, I’m sure everyone who reads has indulged in something trashy at some point. I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed to read them (of course, I’m someone who has been known to read comic books at airports while on business travel), but are they really worth giving up precious shelf space?
Sure, you can just check them out from the library, but sometimes I like to own my guilty pleasures.
The second advantage of ebooks also has to do with the state of our library:
My lack of organizational skills.
I happen to be very fond of turn-of-the-twentieth century weird fiction and ghost stories, and I own Dover or Wordsworth editions of many of the well known authors: M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu. The problem is, I can’t always find them. Shelves two layers deep, boxes in the garage — remember? So I have ebook versions of them from Project Gutenberg, or other sources, too. That way, when I read some commentary that mentions the lesbian undercurrents of Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and I think, “Really? Why don’t I remember that?” — it’s easy to refresh my memory without spending half an hour rummaging through bookshelves and boxes.
Of course, this e-backup strategy only works if you have a taste for literature in the public domain. Which I do. And so the next advantage of ebooks:
Project Gutenberg (and others like them).
Project Gutenberg predates the ebook phenomenon by quite a bit, of course.
Project Gutenberg began in 1971 when Michael Hart was given an operator’s account with $100,000,000 of computer time in it by the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois.
At any rate, Michael decided there was nothing he could do, in the way of “normal computing,” that would repay the huge value of the computer time he had been given … so he had to create $100,000,000 worth of value in some other manner. An hour and 47 minutes later, he announced that the greatest value created by computers would not be computing, but would be the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries.
From The History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg by Michael Hart. Emphasis mine.
Hart’s philosophy is that books in the public domain should be easily obtainable to the largest number of people, and immune to changes in technology and storage formats, so the default format for Gutenberg texts is vanilla ASCII, and rightfully so. That said, formats like EPUB or Kindle that go on an e-readers make the texts more “book-like” and more user-friendly, which can only be an advantage. I had heard of Project Gutenberg years ago, in grad school, but I didn’t start using it frequently until I had an iPad.
Between Project Gutenberg and Feedbook’s public domain collection, I’ve now read more of the classic authors than I had before, especially those with a taste for the weird tale: Edith Wharton, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.T. Hoffman, Sir Walter Scott. And more of the classic genre authors: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Sax Rohmer, H. Beam Piper. I’ve read collections of Japanese folktales, Persian folktales, Punjabi folktales, Chinese folktales.
Some of these authors I looked up directly, because I’d read something about them, or a friend had mentioned them. Some of them I found by accident while poking around the websites. Much of it (especially the folktale collections) I would never have found in the library, or even in my favorite bookstores.
Much of the pleasure of physical books is sensory. I don’t just mean the weight of the book or the feel of the pages, or the pleasure of the older typesettings, but also the experience of the bookstore or library. The sight of all those book covers, the smell of the paper and the bindings, especially in a used bookstore or the library stacks. The experience of finding something you didn’t know you wanted. The tragedy of Amazon (even before the Kindle) was losing the experience of the bookstore. Surfing a website isn’t the same.
But the experience of reading, especially when you are liberated from hunching over your computer screen, isn’t lost when you switch to ebooks. Changed, yes. But not lost.