On Paper and Electrons

Kwaidan Stories and Studies of Strange Things

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:

Trashy books.
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.

9 thoughts on “On Paper and Electrons

  1. This is a great post! I’m on the fence, too, but like you said, I come down on the side of “traditional” books. However, I never even thought of classics, in the public domain books courtesy of venues such as Project G. That is a great argument. Also, as someone who gets many galley copies (especially of books I don’t like), I’m generally in a pickle when it comes to adding them to my ever-growing collection. I wish I could just get rid of the bad ones but alas used bookstores can be picky about buying galley copies. I would definitely appreciate it if an editor just sent me a Kindle with the books already loaded on it.

    1. Thanks! I actually thought about the galley issue (since you had mentioned having to review books you don’t necessarily want people to see you reading), but I didn’t mention it since I don’t review books very often.

      And I understand that publishers often don’t want the galleys being released into the wild, right? So giving review copies as DRM’d ebooks could be a win-win situation.

  2. I’ve been using Project Gutenberg for decades now, whenever I need lots of copyright-free text data. Huckleberry Finn has been through just about every text filter I’ve ever written….

    And I’ve been going back and forth with the eReader thing, too. I had found Baen Book’s Free Library, and started reading lots and lots on my old Palm m515 (back in 2003).

    Then I found paperbackswap.com, and that, combined with searchable award lists and review sites on the net have essentially caused me to swap out all of my old paperbacks for new words written on paper. (That stack of unread books is approaching 300 now…)

    Then I figured out how to make EPUB documents on my own, and *that* let me anthologize a lot of the online fiction I like (but don’t want to bother reading at the computer), and put it on my iPod Touch.

    I probably would abandon paper entirely (for books with no illustrations or tabular data) if they were easy to trade. Maybe in the 5 years of reading that pile of real books represents, good ebook trading systems will emerge.

    1. Non-DRM’d EPUBs are tradable now, like non-DRM’d music. But of course most publishers won’t release non DRM’d texts. Heck, Kindle doesn’t even let you have a book that you bought on more than one device at a time.

      But, I do hear that you can borrow library books through Kindle now, so maybe they will eventually push that process through to trading between individuals.

      1. Non-DRM’d EPUBs are tradeable now, but they’re also infinitely copyable, so they lose their value as trade goods. (And their value to publishers is really nothing more than boosting an author’s name recognition. Which is why Baen does it.)

        Kindle is slow to the “borrow” thing; the Nook and the Sony readers have been behaving much better in this regard. The San Jose public library has had a lend-to-your-book-reader thing for almost a year now, but it doesn’t work with Kindle. (Or didn’t, at any rate.)

        The Kindle really is about giving you a storefront and then locking in where your dollars go. (That’s the only real justification for the low price.) Barnes & Noble probably has the same goal in mind, and Sony has a store as well, but since they’re both playing catch-up, they tend to give better lip service to people who want to spread their money around more widely.

        Admittedly, my desire for eReaders seems to hinge entirely on the viability of a used book market there, which is a shame, really, because it means I’m a lousy reader, rarely spending money in a way which fills the pockets of my favorite authors. It’s just *so* much easier on my pocketbook to spend roughly $2 per book, rather than the $8 per book B&N or Amazon charges.

        I have turned into a cheapskate, apparently. Sheesh.

        1. @Steve: Re. non-DRM’d epubs, I guess I am thinking of “sharing” more than I am of “trading”, which I think satisfies much of what you want in terms of finding new books from other people with your interests. And as you pointed out, it isn’t actually less profitable to the author than the used book market is, physical or virtual.

          I suppose authors have to figure out how to monetize souvenirs and reading tours, like musicians do 🙂

          1. Trading vs. sharing actually depends entirely on how much money I’ve spent to get the title in the first place. If I got it for free, I’ve got no problem with sharing as widely as I can. That’s probably the reason the title was made available free in the first place.

            But if I spent actual money on a book, I’d like to get some kind of return on it, if I’m participating in some kind of trade. (Especially if I’m talking about strangers. I’ll give a friend a book with no expectations.)

            It’s a strange new world… Welcome to the future!

  3. Naturally the feel of books is an inherent part of a beloved experience. Quite probably when moving from stone tablets to papyrus there was a heated discussion about the wrongness of papyrus.

    I found myself reading books off a tiny iPhone screen crouched in a darkened kid room, so I suspect I will read even if it is only one character in a time, in Morse code. Also, on a trip I would carry a Kindle rather than a pile of books, and ironically that caused my niece and nephew to lecture me about the tactile superiority of physical books. Smarty-pants both.

    The following may be shocking to paper-book fans, but I love reading books in a bath (naturally only the cheap disposable mind candy is risked there). I have not yet been brave enough to use a Kindle there.
    While growing up, my parents’ library directed my taste. When I add books to my library, I try to imagine I may be doing the same for my kids – but I do wonder. To what extent would the computer screen be their window to reading, instead of my inviting library?

    1. Even after I got the iPad, I turned up my nose at the idea of reading on my phone — how could that possibly be a good reading experience? But I do read on my phone now, and with ebooks, at least (as opposed to pdfs), it’s not so bad. And the phone is always with me, while the iPad isn’t.

      It will amuse you (well, it amused me) to know that Socrates turned up his nose at writing : http://wondermark.com/socrates-vs-writing/ . So curmudgeonliness is an age-old phenomenon.

      I’d not thought about the influence of one’s bookshelf on one’s children. It is kind of sad to think that your Kindle account, or your bookmarks tab, is the path to their learning, instead of your bookshelves, isn’t it?

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