Books Ain’t Dead
May 17, 2011

IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. ...

Image via Wikipedia

When you cut through all of the chaff, the debate over whether analog books are dead sounds a lot like this:

Pro-ebook, anti-book: I personally think ebooks are fine. They are also cheaper to produce. Therefore, the book is dead.

Pro-book: Hey! I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead, and we should continue to pay taxes supporting our local libraries.

Those are some pretty self-centered arguments, but as a stalwart book partisan I figure the least I can do is be unabashed about my self-centeredness. I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have anything against ebooks. I own a first-generation Kindle, and sometimes I even use it. But it’s almost always easier and more pleasurable for me to read a book. My attachment to them is pragmatic, and not just aesthetic or sentimental (though it is both of those things as well). As Nicholas Carr writes:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Maybe some day the ebook will become as versatile as the book. I rather suspect it will just become a different kind of medium with its own advantages and idiosyncracies. The book will remain the book: disposable for some, not so much for others.

That’s all the justification I need for keeping libraries open and well-stocked. If a statistically significant slice of the population still finds it easier and more pleasurable to read a physical book than an ebook, taxpayers should accommodate them. After all, the whole reason we have libraries is to increase everyone’s ease of access to information. For quite a few folks, gleaning that information from ink and paper is still easier than squinting at a screen.

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Love in the Time of E-Books
August 2, 2010

A Picture of a eBook
Image via Wikipedia

Via Matt’s Twitter feed, I found this Slate article by Mark Oppenheimer lamenting the dawn of the eBook age for one reason in particular:

Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands. As the Kindle and Nook march on, people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.

That’s one way to look at it, sure. But I’m going to play the contrarian here, and for once I’m going to do it from a position of optimism.

Let’s recall what happened to vinyl after the advent of cassette tapes, and later CDs and MP3s. They didn’t die out entirely, not at all; not only do collectors still covet older vinyl records, but quite a few bands still produce new ones in limited releases alongside their new CDs and digital offerings. The folks who now collect vinyl are considered sophisticated music connoisseurs—or, depending on your perspective and the specific collector, pretentious dicks.

Either way, a vinyl collection is a sign of commitment to the medium, or at least of a desire to demonstrate commitment to the medium. I don’t think it’s implausible that if eBooks truly take over, print editions will one day be regarded in the same way.

So take heart, single book nerds of the future. That cute girl on the subway reading a print edition of The Age of Innocence isn’t just doing it for a class—the very fact that she has a print edition in the first place means she’s a serious reader. As for your dog-eared copy of—to borrow from Matt’s exampleGoodbye, Columbus, it will now be sexier than ever, at least to the sort of person you were looking to attract in the first place.

And hey, if that turns out to be wishful thinking, there’s always the “Favorite Books” section on your Facebook and online dating profiles.

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Enhanced E-Books
July 29, 2010

Cover of "Nixonland: The Rise of a Presid...
Cover via Amazon

Today, Simon & Schuster is releasing the “enhanced” e-version of Nixonland, replete with all kinds of multimedia widgets and doodads embedded into the text, such as video interviews and news clips straight from the time period which the book covers. The Times has an article up about it and other enhanced e-books, and I have to say that while I’m still first and foremost a print partisan, this is pretty exciting stuff.

I suspect, though, that it’s application is limited. Certainly I can se the use for a sprawling history like Nixonland, especially when it’s about a time following the advent of televised news. In fact, the possible applications for textbooks and nonfiction in general are pretty exciting. But I’m skeptical that the same could be said for an enhanced novel. Take a look at some of the features promised with the first slate of enhanced novels coming out:

Grand Central Publishing, part of Hachette, released an “enriched” e-book version of Mr. Baldacci’s latest novel, “Deliver Us From Evil,” in April to coincide with the hardcover release. The e-book producers borrowed from the film industry and included “research photos taken by the author, deleted scenes from the manuscript, an alternate ending and other special features,” Hachette announced in March. Penguin’s edition of Mr. Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” comes with video clips from an eight-part television series based on the book.

So … a bunch of vestigial DVD extras and a commercial for a TV series. Not exactly mindblowing stuff.

I suspect there is something artistically interesting that could be done with enhanced text, but that would require writers interested in writing for the enhanced format. I suspect economic factors are going to get in the way, at least for the foreseeable future; publishers want to reach both print and electronic markets, and the books that merit being “enhanced” are mass market best-sellers, a category that doesn’t include most of the interesting, challenging literature being produced these days. And then there’s the matter of budget and production values.

Still, I’m sure some enterprising fiction writer will do something cool with it eventually. Whatever it is, it won’t be a novel, but something else with its own set of possibilities. I look forward to it—what I don’t look forward to is the new round of undeserved eulogizing for print those of us who like our ink-and-paper editions just fine will have to endure.

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