I’m sitting outside and the weather is great. Warm air, a bit on the windy side of breezy, but sunny enough that it’s still lovely. The most annoying thing at the moment is that my lunch keeps scooting across the table because of the wind, and there’s an occasional bee that flits past my ears. I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale, my finger tracing over passages I want to remember later. A buzz on my leg indicates to me that my phone is dying and that I’m just out of range of my work’s wifi. I put it face down on my table and continue reading.
I’ve actually loved ebooks since before they were a thing. As a kid I was happy to be part of an early adopter family. One of the first to have a computer, the first of my friends to have the internet, mini-discs, a CD burner. Being an old millennial who grew up with technology like a young millennial, I was constantly excited about what could be invented and introduced at any moment. Part of that eagerness is why I still build and hack a lot of my current tech and toys, because I want it to do the things it can do, even if that’s not what it was built to do. And when music just began to go digital I started dreaming of the same magical transformation to cocoon my books and emerge as something wondrous. This was years before the E Ink Corporation was even founded.
When I was a child I never quit a book. I was an unquenchable reader. It was common practice for me to take books along (plural) when going to restaurants. I settled on a system of three books at a time: one to read, and two to follow up with so I would have a choice for my next title. It was not uncommon for me to be berated, though gently, to put my book away when we had company over for dinner. I had a loft bed with drawers underneath, and set up a few pillows and a clipped lamp in the negative space below my mattress for reading. If I were this enthralled with anything besides books it probably would have been viewed as an addiction, or at least a problem. But books are good, and so it was allowed and encouraged.
And so I’ve grown up as a person who just isn’t comfortable without books. Even if I won’t have a chance to read, if I don’t have the option of reading I get a little uncomfortable. But… it’s not the fact that I can carry hundreds of books around with me that I love. With that sort of selection I sometimes get choice paralysis, so that’s not the thing that makes them work for me. What I love about ebooks is that a basic ereader is exactly what I want from the technology and nothing I don’t. I can take the (usually) three or so books I’m currently reading with me at all times, and not have to pick. I can sit outside during my lunch and read in the sun. And just read. There’s no (functionally convenient) browser, no email, no notifications or texts. Other than tapping a word for a dictionary definition, or highlighting and making notations, it’s just a book. The reason I hate reading on tablets and phones is beyond just the screen; reading on an ereader is essentially the same as reading a book for me.
This may seem like a nonissue to many people, but to my circles it’s a perpetual debate. Among librarians, archivists, and booksellers there are more issues at stake and more passions burning than anywhere else with this topic. For most people it’s about a reading preference. Some people say they don’t like reading on a back-lit screen (despite the hours they’re used to spending reading text on a computer screen on a daily basis for over a decade). Every now and again I’ll see an (incredibly flawed) article passed around regarding studies that show how knowledge retention drops while reading on screens1. But the same way that some people are auditory learners and some visual, the reading experience can be subdivided as well. Distractions from books in any form can be a problem, whether it’s the wind flipping paper pages, heavy paperbacks that make reading physically uncomfortable, or the glare off of a screen. There has yet been any study to show that any particular form of the written word is categorically better or worse for reading. Even the blue light studies are problematic in what they control for, and shouldn’t be taken as gospel.
Then there’s the accessibility issue. People that make it their purpose to put books into the hands of the public, be they books sellers or library lenders, know that just finding the book is half the battle. Between reviews, recommendations, and readers advisory, there are entire communities and industries built around getting books into peoples’ hands. And even then the battle is not won. Those books still need to be read. That brings me to accessibility. Something that is often ignored in the Great Book Form Debate is the openness of ebooks. There’s the geographic aspect. There are people who live in areas that are hard to get physical books to. Sometimes it’s because of the area of the country they’re in, sometimes it’s because the country has a terrible mail system, and sometimes it’s because shipping itself makes things prohibitively expensive. Digital delivery can make books accessible in a place where delivery is impossible.
There are also physical restrictions on the reader than can be assuaged with ebooks. For example, I often tell people with failing eyesight that every ebook can be a large print book. Large print collections in library are often a minuscule part of the total collection, and skew heavily toward best-selling fiction. But that locks off a large portion of reading material, or makes available materials highly sought after and therefore puts them at the end of a long wait list. But with ebooks, if it’s digitally published its text can be scaled. And beyond the wait factor, there’s a weight fact. Some people have problems holding heavy items for long periods of time. With an ebook it’s going to weigh about 6 ounces. A digital newspaper? 6 ounces. War and Peace? 6 ounces. A textbook? I think you get it. Ebook devices don’t get heavier the more text is in them and that can be the difference between someone who needs an aide to assist them with reading textbooks and being able to read on their own. There are elderly people who simply don’t read because books are often heavy hardcovers, over-sized large print, or small print paperbacks. Ebooks? Problem solved
And for the technically aware, and archive minded, there are ownership issues. Ebooks get tricky here because there’s a vast difference between what they can offer and what they do offer in practice. Ideally, ebooks are an archivist and collectors dream. They offer perfect copies that won’t degrade over time, can be backed up and shared infinitely, and easily indexed and searched. On a practical level things are not so simple. By design, they are often unable to be shared, copies are rendered useless, and often purchased and collected items can only be accessed by readers of the same brand. Can you imagine if you could only park your car in a branded spot, or every item in your pantry had to have a shelf that matched the store it was bought at? It’s also impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, for a library to buy a single ebook a la cart somewhere and integrate it into their collection. A library can pick up a used book, a donation, or a book from an independent publisher and put it into circulation with relative ease. Ebooks are usually locked into digital rights management systems that, if not bought from a regular seller, don’t play well with new titles. This is all due to publishers locking their books into insanely pointless and arbitrary systems (buy copies of ebooks that expire after a handful of uses, or a year no matter the number of checkouts). In this case, physical books can be repaired if checked out and handled a certain number of times while ebooks are deleted from collections because publishers only sold 52, for example, circulations of an item. So while not a limitation of the medium itself, ebooks do become far more problematic than they should be because of technical interference.
So yeah, ebooks. Are they perfect? No. Can they be? It depends since there’s no objective answer to personal preference. For me, I generally prefer an ebook. There are exceptions (I’ve had some entertaining issues with authors and autographs in the past) but for the most part when I want a casual reading experience I’m inclined to reach for an ebook over a paper copy. There’s something about the convenience of them, as well as the options I can leave myself when taking a book to read at the beach, during lunch, or at a socially taxing party, that I find inherently comforting. The simple fact is that I love books and reading, and that an ereader, a simple ereader, vanishes and leaves the book behind, along with a handful of things books can’t do. When I read it’s generally about the text for me. I enjoy the heft and paper weight of a collector’s edition now and then, but for the majority of my reading I don’t care about the paper, I care about the book. Yes, the texture and smell of a page can be romantic and hypnotizing, but if you ask someone what their favorite part of reading a book was you’re much more likely to have someone tell you about vanishing into a moment in the story than to hear about the smell when they picked up the book.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||Often these studies do not differentiate between sitting down to read a book on a computer, tablet, or dedicated e-reader, and flipping through an article on Facebook while catching up on social media. If you think you’re paying the same amount of attention in those situations then it’s probably your reading habits, and not the medium, that’s the issue.|