tomato you say?

cuneiform

reading, old school

ALERT:  POINTLESS INTERNET RANT AHEAD, you’ve been warned, chickadees!

Now that everybody and their grandmas are reading e-books via Kindles, Nooks, iPads, their desktops, and their phones, I’ve begun to notice a rising swell of people who’ve either never adopted the e-book format or who once embraced it wholeheartedly but now have found A Better Way and who just have to share it with us.  Many of these shares are thinly veiled screeds about the Right, True, and Only Proper Way to read a damn book.  I might be getting a little tired of it.  A day or two ago this article came to my attention and I guess it serves as a good a place as any from which to jump-start this rant.  I don’t really intend to single this guy out (whoever he is) but this particular article manages to hit all my pet peeves about this non-argument right on the head.

I’ll start with the title.  I’d like in my heart to believe this is just one man’s discussion of his own experiences with books and e-books but when one titles one’s article, “Why I dropped eBooks and embraced a perfect technology in its original and most meaningful form”, I do detect a slight whiff of Holier Than Thou.  I’ll leave aside the “original and most meaningful form” bit for now (WTF does that even mean?) and focus on the “perfect technology” part.  Honestly?  Since when is paper and leather and glue and string perfect technology? It tears.  It burns.  It molds.  It fades.  Insects and rats love it.  It sucks to get it wet.  It can be lost, in whole or in part.  It can be assembled badly.  Good technology, sure.  Great technology,  yeah, why not?  Perfect technology?  Give me a break.

Our author is quick to inform us that he was an early iPad adopter, although it took him some months to come around to reading books on it.  He provides a cursory list of the reasons why he made the switch; they are the same reasons most of us give and he doesn’t dwell on them.  Then after what he calls “years” of using his iPad as an e-reader (although it can’t have been more than two and a half.  Do people really get jaded so fast these days?) he picked up a Real Book, had an Epiphany, and decided to ditch his e-books in favor of this “perfect technology in its original and most meaningful form”.  And then gives us in detail his reasons for doing so.

I don’t have to troubleshoot my paper books

Apparently the few steps one has to take to buy, set up, and log into an e-reader were too much for our Author, even though you only have to do them once and they are dirt simple.  My own experience with this was entirely trouble-free in every single format (Nook Color, Nook Glowlight, my desktop PC, my netbook PC, both Mac laptops, and my iPhone).  My entire e-library (save magazines on the Glowlight) is available on whichever of these devices I have with me and wherever I choose to go.  My books sync perfectly nearly all the time and when they don’t it’s not any different than losing my place in a Real Book.  It’s sort of amusing that our Author considers researching purchases as a negative since he apparently didn’t research his own e-reader purchase much, if at all.  As far as researching books themselves goes, I don’t see any sort of qualitative difference in browsing Amazon or B&N for digital books and standing in a bookstore paging through Real Books.  Buying e-books is certainly easier; no need to whip out my credit card and sign something every damn time.  B&N has that shit on file.

Don’t get me started on trouble-shooting books themselves.  I have so many Real Books that I never know where the one I want to read is.  I have piles of them around because I’ve run out of shelf space.  That’s not a problem with the Nook.  I’ve bought books with missing pages, uncut pages, out of sequence pages, upside down pages, pages from other books, and a myriad of other problems.  The few typos I encounter in e-books are no more or less than I run into in the typical hardcover.  A bad print run of Real Books gets pulped but a bad e-file gets deleted and a corrected one downloaded.  No muss, no fuss, no wasted dead trees.  Replacing a bad hard copy is a pain in the ass no matter how it is done.

I have an acquaintance who adamantly declares she’ll never buy an e-reader because she likes to read in the bath.  It’s fairly obvious she’s never dropped a book into a tub full of soapy water.   Wet books are usually doomed books.  The pages puff and wrinkle and will never lay right again. The water will permanently stain the pages.  The covers get ruined no matter what they are made of (cloth is the worst though).  Once wet they’ll mold pretty quickly unless you can get them dried out fast.  The binding will deteriorate.  While I don’t take my Nook into the bath neither do I take books I really care about.  If I did happen to drop the Nook into the tub it’s not a big deal.  A new one is 60 bucks and all the books on it are undamaged.   A bartender spilled a full pint of beer all over my Nook the other night and other than a lingering whiff of chocolate stout, it’s right as rain.   Had that been a Real Book it would be stained, wrinkly, and smelly indefinitely and I would probably have thrown it away.

For all their durability, books are essentially fragile things.  When they last for decades, centuries, millenia, it’s basically luck.  They haven’t been tossed on the waste heap, recycled for other things, burned by accident or mobs or for fuel, eaten by rats and silverfish, lost to flood or tornado or hurricane.  They haven’t moldered to dust quietly on some forgotten bookshelf or deteriorated from wear and tear.  Will e-books last as long as, say, the Dead Sea scrolls?  I have no idea.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility though. I do know that none of the things that destroy Real Books can do anything to my e-books.  The worst thing I worry about B&N going out of business and no longer supporting their e-library but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Talking to people is great!

Apparently no one talks to our Author when he uses his iPad in public.  Perhaps he lives someplace where people are more polite, or more shy, than they are here.  People talk to me all the time when I have my Nook out.  Often it is about the reader itself:  do I like it? was it expensive? how well does it work?  But just as often people will ask me what I’m reading and then we’ll talk about that particular book, books in general, favorite authors or genres, reading, or maybe something else entirely.   It’s ludicrous to me that anyone could think that “very positive, human experiences” don’t happen to people using Kindles.

Attention Profit vs Attention Deficit

I lived with someone for a long time who had problems entertaining himself.  Every time I sat down to read he’d find some reason to take my attention away from the book.  I have dogs and cats, all of whom would prefer that I spend time with them instead of musty old paper.  The phone rings.  The neighbor is mowing his lawn.  It’s thundering.  Someone’s car backfires.  The housemate wants to watch TV.  It goes on.  There are plenty of things to distract you while you are reading, whatever the format, and when I want to read I minimize those distractions beforehand.  If you can’t figure out how to turn off your email and app notifications, don’t blame the device for your lack of attention and inability to focus.

The tactile experience is unmatched

Ah yes.  Real Books are better because they are…Real Books.  I think Real Books are lovely things.  I have a billion of them, give or take.  Some I own just because they are beautiful, and yes, I love to touch them and I love the smell of their pages and the rustle they make as I flip through them. But you know what?  Those things are props.  The words are what matter.  If you can’t get what you want from the content without having the exact right props then maybe the problem isn’t the props, yeah?  So for me, thumbing through pages and swiping them brings the same thrill of anticipation.  Somehow that experience doesn’t feel “synthetic” at all.

BTW, our Author ends this section with this gem: “The synthetic version we get with eBooks doesn’t equate. I imagine its like eating a tofu equivalent of your favourite meat. At some point you might ask yourself, ‘why am I pretending to read a book?’”  First things first:  tofu is delicious in its own right and I will not tolerate anyone using it as an analogy for second-best.  Second, “pretending to read a book”?  PRETENDING TO READ A BOOK?

picard wtf

It’s pretentious crap, Jean-Luc, that’s what it is.

Sharing is possible and encouraged

Eh, I’ll give him this one.  While limited sharing is possible with my Nook it’s really not encouraged.  Publishing companies are about equivalent with music publishers when it comes to new technology.  They are so worried about piracy that they are willing to cripple their own product to prevent it.  Also, of course, Amazon wants us to buy Kindles and then buy books for those Kindles from Amazon so they create proprietary software and formats (likewise with the Nook and B&N).   Moving books between platforms is not impossible or even very effortful but it’s not really something that publishers and booksellers should be making difficult.  I can lend some books via the Nook but in my experience the percentage of books I buy that I am allowed to share is small and of course I can only share them with fellow Nookies.  On the plus side there are more people and companies out there making multi-platform, DRM-free versions of their books available (Gutenberg, Save the Sci-Fi, Tor, the Humble Bundle collections, J.K. Rowling (!), lots of people that publish via creative commons) and all those are easily share-able.  I fully expect this trend to continue and expand.  After all, e-readers are barely 10 years old; they and our relationship to them are bound to mature.

What I buy I actually own

There has been angst and confusion over “ownership” vs. “licensing” issues ever since e-books hit the market.  A few years ago Amazon recalled illegal copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm by remotely deleting them from users’ machines.  Customers were notified after the fact and given refunds.  B&N was dinged a year or so ago for denying access to purchased e-books when a customer’s account information wasn’t up to date.   Crossing international borders can have some interesting consequences.  I was outraged over these things for a few minutes and then I looked at the hundreds of books on my shelf that I read once and will most likely never touch again.  There they sit, gathering dust and taking up real estate.  Yeah I could give them away or sell them or whatever but I’ve always found that hard to do (although I am getting better at it).  Do I really need to own every book I read forever?  I certainly don’t mind leasing movies for a period of time; why should books be any different?    I’ve been dealing with digital content for a very long time now and I’m pretty much over being concerned about the “licensing” vs. “buying” issue.  I’m confident all this will get sorted, sooner rather than later, and it just doesn’t worry me.  Basically the reasons I read and value e-books are the same whether I own the books or license them:  ease of use, portability, economy, compactness, lower environmental impact.

The real problem here is that the distinction between owning and licensing is not transparent to the customer and it should be.  Terms and conditions should not be pages long and dense with jargon; at the very least they should have a tl;dr version.  Amazon and B&N and whoever else should stop using a button that says “BUY” on their e-book transactions.   And consumers should really read stuff before they hit that “agree” button.  It’s called being responsible for your behavior.

“Is this really better?”

Our author leaves us with this:  “What I’ve learned through this book reading experience is that sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves ‘Is this really better?’ instead of being temporarily blinded by the shine of a new technical creation. I tried to join the revolution but the most meaningful part of the book reading experience was obfuscated by the troubleshooting, proprietary and commercial nonsense that went along with it. This isn’t an indictment of the iPad itself, rather it’s a look at how the human experience of story telling and learning through books has lost something in its digital form.”

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice probably 30 times and own a lovely hardbound set of all Jane Austen’s works.  When I bought the Nook I was delighted to find a free, high quality, e-book version of P&P included.  I will be damned if I can discern any difference in the pleasure I get from reading it based on the format.   Will I always own a physical copy of this book?  Absolutely.  Will I make sure it’s on every electronic device I use to read books?  Absolutely.   Has the “human experience of story telling and learning through books” lost something for me in its digital form?  Hardly.   Did I stop and ask myself “is this really better?”  You betcha.  Can you guess what the answer is?

Like many of the things we choose to argue passionately about (Mac vs. PC, iPhone vs. Android, IE vs. Firefox vs. Chrome, Nikon vs. Canon, Coke vs. Pepsi, whatever) there really isn’t a right or wrong choice in the “real books vs. e-books” debate.  It comes down to what you personally like.   The guy that wrote this article gave e-reading a go for a bit and it didn’t gel for him and that’s fine, for him.  I can, however, do without having my own choices belittled as inauthentic, lacking in meaning, and somehow subpar.  I wasn’t an early adopter of e-readers but I’ve been using mine for three years now and I’m pretty happy with it.  It hardly signifies the End of Reading As We Know It.

For me, reading is reading.  If I have a physical book in front of me, I’m happy to read it.  If I have my Nook handy I’m just as happy to read that.  I own a number of books in both formats; I’m flexible that way.  I don’t think one is really better than the other; they have their times and their places.  Some things don’t work very well for me in the e-book format (image-laden magazines, comic books, House of Leaves, coffee table books) but for most of what I read it’s a great tool.  Most of the annoyances involved with e-books are as minor as those involved with hard copy books, and let me tell you, long haul travel with an e-reader is a godsend.  Some day I want to live mostly free of possessions in a small house, possibly in Japan.  When that day comes most of my physical books will, sadly, have to go.  I’ll still have the e-reader though, whichever one I’m using then.   And so, in a very real sense, I will still have my books.

As with most things, YMMV.  It doesn’t really matter how you choose to do it.  All that really matters is that you read.

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~ by gun street girl on January 20, 2014.

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