A Book by Any Other Name
This past Christmas, I finally got an e-reader. Nothing fancy, just the basic Kindle; not even the new “paperwhite” kind but the one that is cheap and simple and straightforward. It’s black and white only, it doesn’t interact with the internet other than to download books, I can’t watch movies or write reviews or check Facebook on it, but that’s just fine and dandy with me.
I love it, although I haven’t gotten into the habit of using it all that often yet. It’s a godsend for time spent in doctors’ reception rooms and other waiting areas, and I’m looking forward to slipping it into my pocket once the weather gets better for those jaunts to the dog park with the mighty Belle. If I ever start riding the bus again regularly, my e-reader will be worth its weight in gold, as it will if we ever take a road trip again where I’m not the one driving. Whenever accessibility and mobility are factors, it’s proven to be a marvelous thing.
Still, what I have loaded on it is limited. I would love to use it more for reading around the house, but there’s that danged cost of books still; buying e-books is not necessarily that much cheaper than hard copy books. I appreciate that Amazon has deals for those who sign up for the daily email advert; I don’t begrudge that they bolster their name recognition and customer loyalty along with the $1.99 titles. Altruism for any reason is fine by me, and I’ve gladly snatched up a few volumes that I might not have otherwise purchased (Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower? For under $2.00? Yes, please!), but I’ve also so far been able to reason, “Now, do you really want to nickel and dime your grocery money away for that?” and stay somewhat disciplined.
And it’s been really great to have exposure to authors, especially short story authors, whose works are available for free on my Kindle. Usually these freebies are promotions, but I don’t really care – these are the types of works that I can’t afford to buy and probably wouldn’t even know to look for at the library, but of which I thoroughly enjoy reading. Often they come to me word of mouth from other avid readers, or even writers who are helping to promote their own or their friends’ and colleagues’ works, and I’ll gladly snap those up no matter the genre. Free = good! And having someone vouch for them makes them a safe bet. In fact, I’ve downloaded so many recommended free titles that I haven’t had time to explore even a fraction of them! This is a laudable predicament to have, I will gladly admit that.
But there’s something that I miss with my e-reader, and there’s something I fear.
What I miss is, of course, the feel of a book in my hands; the quality of the paper, the soft sound of the turning of the pages, the familiarity of slipping a finger between them to hold your place while your attention is momentarily directed elsewhere. For more familiar volumes, being able to mark pages so they can be returned to again and again with a simple opening of the covers, or attaching post-it notes or strings or slips of paper for those books that will brook no blemish. (Yes, I know e-readers can highlight passages in an e-book, but it’s just not the same.) The tactile experience of books is lost with an e-reader, and the intimacy of reading is lumped in with watching videos or surfing the web. Superficial, yes, but still a loss.
Then there is the lessening of the sense of permanence that owning books has given me. I realize this is the comfort of a settled life; were I still the nomadic character of my youth, having to lug around boxes of books would be (and was!) not only a chore, but often impossible, so I can see and appreciate the incredible practicality that comes with storing your books electronically. But when I settle into my deep seated, wide armed lounging chair with a cup of hot coffee and a snoozing pup at my feet, and look around my domestic domain, it is the shelves filled with books, overflowing with books, the books stacked on the floors and tucked into corners that bring me the most joy.
They speak of who I am, they proclaim, “A reader abides here!” and that makes me happy. They attest that I am a lover of the fantastical, and a traveler of dreams; due to their variety and quantity and varying degrees of appraised value that I cannot be contained in a narrow boxing of ideas. They immediately display to others that which I deem important, and beg to be explored at least by perusing the titles on the spines and perhaps with a shared enthusiasm or even a magnanimous borrowing. An e-reader can do none of this. It is insular, individual, enclosed, turned off when not in use, whereas books are always present, their latency a potential and not a penalty.
And the fear? The lack of control. My device may hold the books that I’ve collected, but it does not grant ownership of them to me. I am merely allowed to access them at my leisure without further cost when viewed from that device. Any new profitable whim on the part of the distribution company, and they could be lost to me. I’m gambling that Amazon will not be overtly brutish in their allowance of my access to the volumes I have “bought”, but no amount of trust in any corporation will guarantee that change in ownership, profitability or technical status, or procedural ambiguity will not interrupt or remove that access.
And I can’t share my electronic books, unless I hand my device over, as well. I can’t let my mother borrow these books or my sister who lives a day’s ride away, or my next door neighbor. There is no “first sale doctrine” with e-books at this time so I cannot gift or re-gift or give away or share what has been electronically granted to me. This is understandable from an intellectual framework, with the author and publishing house receiving the profit from any and all books “sold” (and distribution company and, and, and…), but from an emotional angle it feels somewhat mercenary and remote. That’s unkind – if e-books could be easily and freely transferred, I’m sure many of the most popular titles would be incredibly undercut in volumes sold; at least with physical volumes you only have one copy. You can lend it out to numerous people, but only one at a time, and only consecutively – no simultaneous sharing there.
But a complete limit to sharing e-books also feels detrimental on even a potential profit level. Here’s a real life example. I lent my copy of Wiley Cash’s brilliant debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, to an acquaintance of mine who also loves books. It’s doubtful that he would have run out to buy it based on my recommendation alone, but having the book in his hands will pretty much guarantee that he will read it, and when he does I’m sure he’ll fall in love with it. My guess is that he then will want a copy of his own, or at the very least, when Mr. Cash’s next book comes out, my acquaintance will be more inclined to purchase a copy, based on the knowledge he gained from reading the first. This is the kind of loyalty to an author that cannot be easily fostered with e-books, and it would seem to me to be a deep loyalty that should not be disregarded even as we move deeper into the electronic age.
Still and all, I do love my e-reader. I hope it never replaces the books on my shelves, nor that it will become the default of future generations (although I think that hope will be in vain). I will treat it as a tool, not the norm. As much as I can, I will still buy physical copies of those books that most grab me, which feel most precious or most divine. Electronic books will never replace for me the total experience of look, feel, smell and transport that physical books elicit. But regardless of the qualitative “better than” gauge, facilitating reading in any way is always, always a good thing. In that, a book is a book is a book, and life is sweet, having options to read to our heart’s content.
It’s all good. Or, enough of it, anyway.