Monday, December 28, 2009

To e or not to e

How do you feel about electronic readers? In my oh-so-exhaustive research, I find:


Space-savers: My mother, inveterate mystery-novel reader and long-suffering car companion of my father and sister, likes not having to carry a stack of novels wherever she goes. She doesn’t know what or how much she’ll feel like reading on a given vacation. In addition to storing half the western world’s whodunits, her Kindle can also display the New York Times and all sorts of other fun stuff. I agree that an ereader makes sense for her space-saving concerns.

Environmentalists: There are environmental reasons to endorse ereaders, at least in certain situations (though research begins to suggest that the gains may not be as great as previously hoped for). The vice president of a large publishing company once came to speak at my college; he pointed out that ereaders are extremely useful for non-book book-related documents. His office uses ebooks to pass around memos, to circulate manuscripts, etc., etc. Think of all the paper they save. I am all in favor of electronicizing much of the tedious paperwork that surrounds both my day and superhero fly-by-night jobs!

A fictional example that further drives this home for me comes from the book I’m currently reading, Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story. In it, the narrator explains that his government ostensibly allowed all books to be published, but in fact never let many of them leave the print shop. He gives an example of a book of his which is to be published; the government’s censor finds 13 objectionable words or phrases, which, the narrator explains, will involve reprinting approximately 190,000 pages. He imagines the ocean of oil that will have to be sold to pay for the forest of trees that will have to be chopped down—all to print his collection of short stories. “A book,” he writes, “for which so much damage is inflicted on nature, whether a masterpiece or trash, is a murderer.” Strong words against paper books, to be sure. The narrator goes on to explain that over time, the government changed policies so that electronic files were used to preapprove books before they reached the print shop. You can imagine that, while this does not solve the fundamental problem of censorship, it does cut down on environmental damage, to say nothing of the costs saved by publishers who don't find themselves with a pile of suddenly unsellable books.


Next to that last one, my reasons in favor of print books seem a bit puny. But I’d like to offer them.

Publishers: I have, for starters, some concerns about the book business’s ability to survive electronicization. Obviously, I’m biased here—I want publishers to succeed because I’d like to work at one. It’s too early to tell what effect ebooks will have on publishers (and bookstores) large, independent, and in-between. I read contradictory evidence every day about whether they help or hurt paper sales; about whether they will ultimately replace printed books. An old boss of mine has some interesting thoughts on the subject; while I can’t find the original article I read, this proposal of his new project sums up a few of his ideas: of particular interest to me, digital communities and limited-edition print books. I think the idea of a limited run for collectors makes sense. I do like art books (and have made a few of my own through a class). The idea of wedding visual form to words in that way interests me, though the resulting prices don’t as much… I do have some reservations about the communal nature of reading, though—

Completists: I think this is where I, Ye Olde Fart Misanthrope, really come down against ebooks. I want my books to be tangible. I like to sit down in a quiet place, pick up a book, flip through its pages. I like to turn those pages as I read, and to turn the last page and close the book. This literal/figurative act of closure is an important part of my experience of reading a book. If I had an ereader, it wouldn’t be the same. I would never finish a book, put away one object and move on to another. Instead, I would click out of one screen and into another. Small difference, you might think, but a large one for me. Done is done. When I go through googlereader, I have this sense that it’s a Sisyphean task. Read and read and read that newsfeed; you will never get to the bottom of it. Authors and publishers envision Endlessly! Interactive! eBooks! Books that will link you to commentaries, books that will update themselves after the publication date to reflect the Real World, books that will let you write fanfiction and meet new friends and God only knows. Ol’ Grumpy Solitaire doesn’t really want those things from a book. She is a completist. (She hopes not this kind.) She wants to finish the damned thing and then move on. A book is her escape from the internet, from the outside world, from the everchanging ebb and flow of conversation, new information, and so on. (This is probably why she prefers novels to nonfiction, though she reads some of each.) To ultimately come down on the side of escapism is too heavy-handed, maybe; books can certainly teach us and bring us into closer community with ideas, other readers, and the world at large. I’m just not sure that that is their primary mission, as many ebook advocates (including those I admire!) seem to suggest.

If you’ll excuse your correspondent, she has to go turn off the internet now and resume reading her novel.

(Also, somewhat relatedly, I sympathize with the authors in this NYT piece that ran Sunday.)


  1. Gah! Fascinating. It's odd because, in the academy (and ugh, can I really say this now? I daresay I can, as unhappy as it makes me), not a soul believes tangible books will be replaced by eBooks. Although there's certainly been a wealth of hullabaloo over the Kindle, almost all shorter readings (and some out-of-print longer readings -- the entirety of Scott's Redgauntlet, for one) are distributed either in PDF form or via internet linkage, and we're verging on a new era of hypermedia studies (terms like "distant reading," which, ostensibly, means reading things in the context of the world, are being bandied about), the physical book, I imagine, will be clutched in the hands of aging academics until the very last breath is drawn from their lungs. The computer lab printer is constantly on the fritz because no one wants to read electronically distributed documents on computer screens (heaven forbid!), and there is something boastful (smugly masochistic, even) about the lugging of tomes to and fro (or the accumulation of said tomes on desks and bookshelves, the visible apprehensibility of things read) that we would, I think, be at great pains to part with. But academia is itself an old and surly institution; mayhaps all this electronicization heralds not merely the death of publishing, but of humanities scholars as well. Am still thinking about the community vs. individual matter. It's something that troubles me as well.

  2. Hm, can't figure out if I'm happy to be grouped with the academics or not. :P

    It's interesting to read what you say; while I would've guessed that academics would favor print, the academic publisher I applied to work for earlier this year planned to switch their distribution to purely digital. Maybe they'll get lots of angry authors who want print monographs.

  3. I would like to introduce the people in that NY Times debate to a phenomenon known as the library. They're mighty useful. Libraries are also the primary buyers of academic monographs.

    Unrelatedly, I recently checked out a book that had an attached CD-ROM with some software. The book was only six or so years old, but I couldn't find a computer old enough to operate the software. I fear something similar could happen with ebooks.

  4. When I saw "Pros:" and then a blank space, I was hoping you meant there were no pros and that the next paragraph would be "Cons:". I was severely disappointed.

    Tangibility is nice, but there are more serious reasons. One is the death of publishing—file sharing will eat the profits, and there'll be no need to print anything, anyway. Another one is what mb said. We still occasionally dig up bits of papyrus with ancient Greek poems, but in 10 years Word documents will be unreadable; PDFs may not last much longer. And of course, someone has to save it all intentionally; we won't find scraps of ebooks in future archaeological sites.

    I'm not so sure about academics. Who reads print journals anymore?


  5. computers eat you if you forgot to beat em up

    show that bullcrap who is boss