The eBook Debate

A friend of mine started a discussion on twitter yesterday with the following statement:

“Never really understood people who resist e-readers because they’ll “miss the smell/feel/texture/etc. of paper books”. To me, that’s like longing for the heft and texture of a VHS tape in a world of Blu-ray/DVDs”

This got me thinking about my own preference and why it exists. In fact, as I thought more on it, I realized that my response  would take a lot more than twitter’s 140 character limit to convey. Make no mistake about it: It is a preference. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to the transition from VHS to Blu-ray/DVD. Everything about a Blu-ray disc is very obviously better than a VHS tape. While the movie is the same story, same acting, etc, the experience itself is actually enhanced with better picture, sound and features. Not to mention the fact that you don’t have to rewind! This example is a clear upgrade and I believe that there are few people who still use VHS tapes.

The eBook vs physical book debate is a lot less clear-cut. My intention with this post is not to inflame one side or the other. As I said, the medium one uses to read is a much more personal preference than whether one moves on to clearly advanced technology and how quickly they do it. So first, I want to explore my own preference and identify why I feel the way I do.

When I was a small child, my dad used to read to my older brother from the Chronicles of Narnia. I was a bit jealous that I was left out (I was only four years old) but I knew that eventually I would be able to hear those stories too. When I finally sat curled up beside my mother as she read those same books to me I was ecstatic. I got so lost in the story, my imagination filling in what I didn’t see on the cover. That book held magic for me. We moved on from one series to another and every new volume, showed me an image to start my imagination going. I could sit on the floor, staring at the picture on the cover as my mother’s voice told me the story.

I think that’s where having the physical book started to matter to me. Yes, you can view cover art on an eReader, but not while you’re reading the book. A child can’t sit at your feet and be inspired by it as you read to them. You don’t see it on your nightstand and reach for it as if summoned by a siren call. I select books from my library by scanning across the the often well-creased spines. Sometimes I just want a comfortable old favorite. Other times, I’m looking for one I’ve read once and may like to read again. I can’t see that on my eReader (yes, I do have one). For me, selecting a new (or old) book to read is a very physical experience.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that, for me, content is not everything. Not even close. I can read the same book on my eReader or on bound paper in my hand and it is actually the same book. My experience, in not just reading the book but choosing it as well, is different with a physical book. I can’t pretend that it isn’t. It’s not some inexplicable obsession with the feel of the paper (although I do like that) or even the scent of a freshly printed, never been read before volume (which is distinct). It’s the fact that for me, the experience of reading a physical book stays with me longer because I’m not just engaging my imagination. I’m creating other sensory memories to link and coincide with what I read.

Here’s a perfect example of what I mean:

I was in Jr High when I first started to develop my musical tastes. We had an incredible AM radio station that was my favorite. They called themselves “Arizona’s Only Alternative”, which was true during that time. They played early 90’s alternative as well as 80’s. I used to listen to it all of the time that I was in my room, even when I was reading. To this day, when I hear The Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love” I remember scenes from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Windy Poplars. Why? Certainly not cause they’re at all intellectually related. It’s because I created that memory.

It’s been said that the number of senses you engage in creating a memory has an effect on how long that memory stays with you. I suppose that’s what it boils down to for me. Reading a physical book has more distinctions that my senses register than reading a digital version. There is the feel of the paper, but also the visual differences in images and type. There is the heft of the book; the feel of it as the weight shifts from my right hand to my left, the thickness of what I’ve read increasing as my interest in the story does. The feeling of only a few chapters left that encourages me to stay up and finish it instead of putting it away.

Reading is definitely a physical experience for me. The story may be exactly the same, but my experience with it changes with these subtle nuances. I’m more easily lost in the story if I don’t have to click a button to load the next page. Are the words different? No. Do I enjoy it more? Absolutely.

Oh, I know there are many benefits to using an eReader and I can understand the appeal. A wide selection of books are available, even some that are out of print. You can order a book and within moments it is downloaded to your device. It can even be a more economical (and ecological) choice, especially for those who use an eReader app on their smart phone or tablet rather than a dedicated device. There is also the matter of being a space saver. You don’t exactly have to have a bookcase for your eBooks. For a more analytical, logical mind than mine, it simply doesn’t make sense to read/collect physical books anymore. For them it’s a clear upgrade. I can very easily see why it’s gaining in popularity.

It’s just not for me. It’s not worth giving up those things that matter to me while reading, those nuances that enhance my experience. The trouble is that I know that eventually, I will have to use my eReader to read anything. We already see major bookstores struggling. What happens when it becomes too expensive or bothersome to publish to print? Experts are already noticing and commenting on the trend towards self-publishing with eBooks. The downfall of the physical book is inevitable. I suppose in this one way, it will be like my friend’s example of VHS. The part that makes me sad, is that while there is nothing wrong with the new technology, there is also not necessarily anything better about it. It may be more convenient than my preferred method of reading, but it comes no where close to enhancing my experience the way a physical book can.

But, again… that’s my preference and not necessarily yours.

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4 thoughts on “The eBook Debate

  1. I can definitely relate to how you feel. I have a Kindle and swear by it now, but recently I purchased Towers of Midnight and had all the memories of purchasing every big bulky hardback in the Wheel of Time series came flooding back into my memories like old friends. It was the first fantasy epic I had read and the memory of the previous hard backs in my hands, the way they weighed down my back packs in junior high, high school, and college, and then my satchel now that I use one of those. The very distinctive covers of every book in the series that came before it, the chapters I can flip to by memory of some of my favorite passages or the tears I shed during exceptionally moving sections of prose in Jordan’s masterpiece.

    The interesting thing is despite all those emotions, now that I am rereading the series in anticipation of the final installment, I find that even though the passages inundate my memories, I am much more cerebral when using an ereader. Some of it has to be the difference between a 14 year old reading fantasy for the first time and a 31 year old catching up with a story that has become an old friend, but I am sure a lot of it comes from the lack of senses that are stimulated by a real book. I mark passages and take notes since I am rereading with a friend who is reading for the first time, but it just isn’t the same, no matter how I remember it the first time or any of the times I reread some of the earlier novels.

    Oddly, or maybe expectedly, I am able to read much faster on the Kindle. I am sure some of that also is because of the lack of senses stimulated by an ereader. It is much easier to focus with a kindle with a instant percentage complete meter down at the bottom than it is with a book you smell, can flip around, and reread chapters every time you sit down. Granted, you can do all of them on a Kindle, but they are always easier when you have the real book in your hand. A real book encourages a total experience…so much so that a Kindle never really comes close. I hope that changes someday because I really am in love with my ereader.

  2. Rhabella brought up some interesting points I had never seen in relies about ereaders but I’l still keep my ereader thank you.

    That lack of things to take my mind off whats at hand…the words is a benefit to me and does not ham my imaginative potential at all.

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