Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What E-Readers Will Never Replace





Mor liked to tear a book apart as he read it, breaking the back, thumbing and turning down the pages, commenting and underling. He liked to have his books close to him, upon a table, upon the floor, at least upon open shelves. Seeing them so near and so destroyed, he could feel that they were now almost inside his head.   
--Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle



The Kindle and other e-readers have received an obsessive degree of attention in the press this year, with some people declaring the Kindle a great leap forward (see Jacob Weisberg in Slate) and others saying it's not nearly as good as a book. Nicholson Baker test-drove one for The New Yorker and found it disappointment: the screen "wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray." 

I'm a little surprised that so far, all the commentary I have read both pro and contra e-readers has focused almost entirely on the reading experience. Most people agree that a printed book--especially a well-designed, well-printed one--is more pleasurable to read, but Kindle partisans love the convenience of carrying many books in a one-book-sized package, not to mention the instant availability of so many titles. I was a Kindle early adopter and I can still remember the first time, stuck in an airport lounge, I zapped a book into my hands out of the ether. It felt like something out of Harry Potter. 


But as any book lover knows, the act of reading a book is only part of your experience of it. You have a relationship with the volume itself, not just with the text it contains. And the physical book, in fact, becomes the symbol of that relationship--in the precise sense that it partakes of what it signifies. When I sit in my armchair and look at my bookshelf across the room, the spines of each volume I've read summon up memories and sensations just as if I were going through a photo album.  

When I think of books I have loved, what comes to mind is not disembodied words, but the actual books. I can remember the way the type lay on the page, the feel of paper and binding in my fingers. But the intensity of my feeling for certain books isn't the product of their aesthetic quality--my disintegrating, shoddy paperback of Le Grand Meaulnes is just as numinous as four elegant hardcover volumes of Virginia Woolf essays that I have preserved much more carefully.

I have always felt slightly disappointed in myself as a reader because I treat books rather gently, unlike Iris Murdoch's Mor, who ravages his books in the course of reading them. It is only by almost destroying the printed pages that he gets them "inside his head." This passage captures something primal about how, in an almost literal sense, we consume writing. You can't consume an e-book quite the same way.


Don't get me wrong: I think my Kindle is great--and reading Kindle books on the iPhone, which I can carry in my pocket, is even better. For me, it's not while I read them, but afterward, that e-books fall short.  

Not only do I remember that magical moment in the airport lounge. I also remember when I turned, or rather clicked, the last page of my first Kindle purchase. Suddenly the book was gone--vanished back into the ether. Perhaps possessing books "in the cloud" alone is a purer way of appreciating literature. But I hope I will not be accused of Luddism or fetishizing print if I say that much as I love my Kindle, the satisfaction of closing a wonderful book and slipping it into a shelf in my library, where I can enjoy its company, will never be equaled by the satisfaction of watching a screen go blank.





(photo of Neil Gaiman's library via Shelfari.com)

19 comments:

kellion said...

Owning a book is a way of keeping it in your head - if I see it on the shelf, I won't forget it, the way that I sometimes forget library books. Last night, I finished Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. It's still on the table, and it will stay there for a few days as I turn it over in my head. Then I'll put the dust cover back on and decide where to shelve it -- it a glass-doored book case in the living room, where I keep my most treasured books -- art and photography, hard-cover copies of the books I love most (some of which I bought after reading from the library), my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre. Will it go in my general collection, in the family room, where I will see it every day and where friends often browse the shelves -- or will it go in my reference collection -- books I admire, emulate, and thumb through often in my own writing. These books aren't just fetishes -- they are pneumonics, tools, objets d'arte, souvenirs of the life of my mind.

Peter Ginna said...

You're right. Although I wrote about finishing a book and shelving it, now that I think about it, when I have read a book that really speaks to me, I will leave it out for a few days, letting it emit its invisible glow. Or, of course, I'll want to lend it to someone else--another thing that so far it's very hard to do with e-readers.

Patti said...

I agree, there's just something about adding a good book to your bookshelf and looking at it once in a while to remember how you felt when you read it.

Bethany Mattingly said...

I think Patti said it really well...sometimes I can just look at my bookshelf and smile. If I pick up a book from it to reread, it's like conversing with an old friend. It's convenient to just go online with the Kindle and pick out a couple books to instantly read. I think I'd really like that, but at the same time, I love going in the bookstore and getting enveloped by books, thumbing through them to find the right one. The Kindle just takes too much out of what I love about books and reading them.

Football Chick said...

When I have new books I tend to keep them on or around my bed before putting them away, even if I know I won't read them yet. If I suddenly lost the use of my legs I could just reach for the nearest book. I don't mind rolling onto them or stepping on them in the morning, in fact, I like it!

Anita Saxena said...

I'm very much attached to my paper books. But, lately the idea of having an e-reader has been growing ever more enticing. This weekend I was at a conference and the person beside me was reading on her Kindle. I had never seen a Kindle in the flesh. I was impressed with how thin it was and the instant availability of books. But I have to agree that the screen did look a sickly gray. Barnes and Noble is offering an e-reader called the Nook (color screen I beleive). Any opinions on the Nook?

Peter Ginna said...

Bethany, I think that what Jeff Bezos says about the Kindle, that it "disappears" when you are reading something that involves you enough is true. I read SEABISCUIT on the tiny screen of a Palm Pilot and was completely "enveloped" in it, to use your word. So you might find e-readers more enjoyable than you think.

Football Chick, I'd watch out for those books on the floor. Sometimes there is a banana-peel effect. On the other hand it's better than stepping on Legos in the morning, which as any parent can tell you, is one of the most painful things about having small children.

Anita, I don't know anyone who has used a Nook, although demonstration models are supposed to be in in B&N stores by now. The New York Times had a roundup of e-readers in its tech pages last week: http://bit.ly/8Sp8rX

Myrna Foster said...

One of my nieces consumes books like that, though not all in one reading. When she kept borrowing THE GOOSE GIRL, I thought about giving it to her, but there were too many memories attached to the book. I ended up taking her to a Shannon Hale signing and buying another one for her.

And I'd much rather slide on a book than step on Legos. My son is more likely to leave Legos scattered on his floor than any other toy.

Peter Ginna said...

Myrna, I realize that's a problem I didn't think of regarding printed books. When your relationship with the physical book is intense enough, you don't *want* to lend it. It's too precious. But then, I hope, you go to a bookstore and buy another one--keeping people like me in business...

Thomas Taylor said...

this is a great post, and I can well imagine that e-readers leave one with a sense of loss once the screen's switched off. That's why I think the Espresso Book Machine, or devices like it, have will have an important role in publishing in the future.

Mind you, I've been wrong before.

Peter Ginna said...

Wait, you have tried to guess the future of publishing and you were wrong??

I don't know whether the Espresso is going to be widely adopted enough to be a big player in the business, but I do think that print-on-demand technology is a hugely underreported piece of publishing's future. E-books get all the attention but books created from digital files are already a big sector of the market and will likely get bigger. Good point.

Myrna Foster said...

I still lend my favorites. There's nothing like sharing a book you love with someone else. And if one of the kids in the family wants to raid my book shelves, I'm thrilled they're reading. Besides, paying attention to what they like pays off when I'm buying birthday presents. "The Last Olympian" was the most coveted book I gave this year. I don't think I'd have gotten the same reaction with an e-book, but I could be wrong.

Thomas Taylor said...

"Wait, you have tried to guess the future of publishing and you were wrong??"

Well, every time I write a novel that publisher's don't want, I get something wrong about the future of publishing:)

Michelle said...

Inside the back cover of each book I own, I write the date that I finished reading it. So I can pull 'Pride and Prejudice' off the shelf and see that I last read was in May of 2007. I can remember that I took it along on a trip to CA because it would fit in my carry-on and Jane is always absorbing, no matter how many times I read her or how noisy the other people in the airport are. I can also see the dates of the three previous times I read it, and remember those days as well. Can't do that with an e-book.

Terry said...

Its not just the feel of real books, it's the memories, not only of the story, but also about where you were and what you were doing at the time you read it.

Recently, I was going through my shelves and pulled out a book I read when my son was a toddler. I looked at the cover, yes I love cover art, and felt the book in my hands. I was instantly transported back to a summer day on a quiet New England beach, reading this book, while intermittently collecting slipper shells and building sand castles with my son.

Not quite your airport magic, that sounds good too. Yet, I really can't imagine an e-reader giving me that sort of experience. Maybe one day. . .

Steph Damore said...

e-books are cool, but they definitely lack the physical relationship that most of us love--they don't feel as personal. I'd never give an e-book as a gift because it wouldn't mean the same.

lisa peet said...

Nicely said. As an inveterate used bookstore/street vendor troller, I'd also add to Terry's comment that the memories of the book's purchase can be really sweet. I remember where I got every one of my books, and often what kind of a crazy bargain I got on them and who sold them to me. No download is going to have that kind of resonance.

Tyler said...

@Football Chick, that's a dedicated reader -- lose the use of your legs overnight and your first thought is relief at having a book in reach, not despair that the phone is out of reach. :-)

tautologico said...

There's an amount of fetishizing involved, to be sure. Most readers will develop a physical relationship with the books, inevitably. This matters for us who grew up reading physical book, but will it matter for the future? I don't think so. I don't believe paper books will disappear entirely, but they'll be probably be few.

I'm sure the few people who could read them also loved their handwritten books, and had this change come about in their lifetimes, they would probably think ill of mass-produced books, a bastardization of what "real books" are.

In the end, I think it's the content that matters, as much as the physical interaction with the book is good and valuable to us. I don't feel an "empty" when I finish an ebook on my kindle - I think that's a bit too dramatic. And I also don't derive most of my pleasure when reading from physically handling the book, but from reading it.

I still love paper books, but I love the possibilities that eReaders and ebooks open for me as well.