There’s been a lot of chatter lately about ebooks. Publishers are trying to figure out how to sell the rights (i.e. who to sell them to, exclusivity, percentages, yes or no to DRM…) and how important electronic reading is, morally and financially, in the scheme of the industry. Authors are caught in all sorts of dilemas — possibly earning better royalties versus seeing their name printed on an actual book; how long they can live on a print versus digital backlist; whether or not they’ll even be see as legitimate by their associations (particularly, as of last June, a genre I don’t read).
Readers have their own host of quandries. They’re trying to decide if e-readers are worth the initial cost, of if the cost of the digital copy is more or less (or even fair) compared to a new or used copy at the nearby bookseller. If all your books are gathered in an e-reader, you’re hiding information from visitors that you might otherwise publish online to strangers. How long does the electronic copy last (are you “renting” or “buying”?) and who decides what you can do with it? Is it preferable to “beam” your favorite new author to your friend, or pass her a worn paperback? How safe is your fancy e-reader at the beach? How do you find out about new titles without cover art, dust jackets, and blurbs? Do your kids need to learn to read and do they need to learn to read words on paper? Does it cut us off even more from the Real World (if passersby, other cafe patrons, coworkers, and fellow train passengers can’t glance over to see what we’re reading and how far along we’ve gotten; if those people can’t lean over and say, “I read that last week and it was awful/awesome.” or “My daughter told me to read that; is it any good?” — And doesn’t that last query take us back to the matter of how will we find good reads without dust jackets?) What happens to the rest of the senses if all books smell the same, feel the same?
I have a friend who’s a judge and a bit of a minimalist when it comes to what she carries. She keeps a wallet in one pocket and her phone in the other. She carries no purse, no makeup, no pens or scraps of paper, no matchbooks, no books. I can’t fathom how she does it since I pull out literary journals, paperback novels, and library books out of my bag if I have to wait in line at the deli, if I have to wait in line for the copier, if I have a few minutes to spare before my friend shows up, if I’m dining alone and the people watching isn’t very good. I keep notebooks for spare ideas and everything from fountain pens to wooden pencils in case I need to write down a note, a phone number, an idea, an observation, a grocery list, anything. She loves her Kindle. She can keep digital versions of her professional publications on there along with the latest novel for book club and no one around her has to be the wiser as to whether she’s pondering chases in case law or a Leon Uris plot.
An older woman at Sleuthfest carried around her Kindle and instantly bought the books of presenters that she thought sounded interesting. She couldn’t exactly get the authors, who were sometimes sitting just feet from her, to sign her new books, though. And she had to annouce to the authors that she’d bought their books because they couldn’t exactly see her clutching their little babies to her chest like so many other attendees.
Personally, I have a few problems with e-readers in general. One, I can’t smell the books. I realize that’s crazy talk, but I want my books to smell like aging paper, mold, dust, or new binding glue — even if I currently have a cold and can’t smell anything. Two, I want my books to be lend-able. I want to tell my friend, “Here, you have to read this.” (And, knowing the one friend, she’s going to sniff the darn thing.) I don’t want to say, “You have to download your own copy of this thing.” What if she hates it? What if the file gets corrupted or expires before she gets to it? What if she can’t afford it now, but she falls in love with it and goes on to buy the rest of the author’s backlist? I want reminders that I haven’t read something. I have dozens of websites bookmarked. I rarely, if ever, get back to them. If they’re filed away electronically, they aren’t in front of me. I forget. If I have a pile of unread books on my shelf from my last trip to the independent bookseller, from my trip to the Book Fair, from who knows where, I can remember to read them when I’m home sick, when I run out of money for more books, when I’m finally in the mood for <insert random genre here>, when it pops up in the queue for book club… I like to write in books — mostly nonfiction — having little arguments with the author or reminding myself to research a point in more depth. I like seeing how much of a book I have left, how far I’ve come, visually. I like not encountering technical difficulties, DRM, and low memory. I like being able to read in the tub, on the beach, in a tent, at a picnic, during a rest on a bike ride, while boating… without worrying about losing expensive equipment. And, I like reading in the car (when someone else is driving) and I’ve discovered that reading things on my Blackberry tends to make me a bit carsick, while reading paper — whether a paperback novel or a glossy textbook that for some reason smelled like formaldehyde — doesn’t make me motion sick in the slightest.
Now, if I read a lot of professional journals that I had no interest in saving or if I read things of a very time-sensitive nature, like financial theory or the latest “Who Moved My Cheese” business bestseller that would be un-buzzworthy by the time I’d gotten to chapter two, I might see myself getting an e-reader for that purpose. If I read a lot of self-help books, I might get myself an e-reader so people I pass wouldn’t feel sorry for me. At the moment, though, I don’t.