Friday, August 5, 2011

Over to the Dark Side: E-reader convert?

Well, I've done it. After a whirlwind week of research, I purchased an e-reader. Believe me, I never thought this would happen. I love the tactile experience of reading an actual book: the dust-musky smell of well worn pages, the soft pencil strokes of age-old marginalia, the scrape of page against page, the crack of a brand new spine--I could go on forever; nothing can replace it.

My decision to get an e-reader was a quick, easy one. There wasn't any of the expected hemming and hawing over whether or not it was a good idea. I was actually surprised it wasn't more dramatic.

After all, I've never been a proponent of bookless libraries, have never bought into the idea that the print medium is a dying culture that will soon be replaced by the snappy pixels of an electronic world, and I've always been very resistant to this overexcited desire to giddily embrace a world where real, solid books don't exist.

But while all this is true, I tried not to view the electronic world of books as a direct threat to the world of real books that I love.

With the e-reader I just thought, why not? It's an alternative platform that makes thousands of books easily accessible. I can borrow e-books from the library, access a bunch of free e-books (many of which are lovely classics) from booksellers, and if I want to, purchase an e-book for a bit cheaper than I would an actual copy. There was just something about having a device that would let me press a button and magically have a book appear that was exciting. Poof! There it is.

What's more, I didn't want to ignore something that had become an important part of the reading, writing, and publishing world where I function as an active citizen. There are many reasons why this electronic strand of the book world has become mainstream. I
don't think it's just a fancy trend; it's become an integral part of the system, a venue for accessibility and the dissemination of reading material to anyone, anywhere.

But then why, as I stood at my local bookstore toying with my e-reader, did I start to feel a little guilty?

Because honestly, as much as it is exciting, there is also something disturbing about the possibility of having books appear and disappear with the click of a button. Where do pixels go when they die? There's the sense that unless a book is a book--something solid that I can hold in my hands--it can be easily eliminated. Poof! It's gone. As if it never existed. A physical object denotes a sense of reality, a presence that cannot be denied. But, words in electronic form appear and disappear, are edited and re-edited, cut and pasted, rearranged to be anything. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations and how far we are willing to go.

I know that with certain works, I'm more likely to purchase the actual book instead of the e-version simply because I want to actually have it. So far, I don't feel that any of the books I've started to read on my e-reader are mine. I'm enjoying the stories I've immersed myself in, but like with any electronic document on my computer, these are still words on a screen. There's a safe distance between me and the book and I haven't yet made a personal connection with the book as an object. There are no folded pages, rumpled covers, or hurried notes along the margins. It's all so scrupulously clean. With no cracked spines, how do I leave my mark behind? If I can't pass a book on to a friend, or thumb through the pages of an old favourite, how do I analyze my relationship with the book? Do we have a relationship at all?

We do; albeit, it's a slightly different one.
I think of e-readers, e-books, and all this electronic book paraphernalia as a supplement and not a replacement. It is simply another way to access the world of books, an exciting new dimension that contributes to book culture and can elevate the way we interact with books.

And that's key--the interaction. I purchased my e-reader to discover a new way of connecting with books. What perhaps, does an e-reader offer that a real book doesn't? Do my reading statistics--knowing how fast or how often I read, what time of day I'm more inclined to read, or how many books I've finished--make for a valuable reading experience? Do reading awards--an electronic badge for starting an e-library, for finishing a book, for electronically highlighting a passage--do these make a difference? What happens when I only have the words and not the pages, the cardboard, and the glue? How does my relationship with books, these beloved objects, change?

In the end, it's the words that matter. While the physicality of a book will provide a sensuous experience, it's the words that I'm drinking in. I'm far from replacing one with the other. I'm vying for a healthy marriage between the two. Whether I get the same level of pleasure with an e-book as I do with a real one is yet to be seen and though at times I'm doubtful, I'm willing to give it a good chance.

Images: Kobo e-reader from TechWorld; Kindle e-reader images are both from Larry Page; old volumes of well worn books from extended epiphany.


  1. From Mirit via Facebook: I just got a KOBO reader myself, about a month ago. I don't see anything wrong with them. They seem to have revived a love of reading in many people, which I think is great. I haven't used my KOBO much yet. I moved to the darkst of the dark... side of reading many years ago. I listen almost exclusively to audio books on MP3. The concept of actually following words on a page is totally novel to me at this point! There's nothing like having someone read to you, especially a wonderful narrator. Who knows if I'll plummet further down this slippery slope. Soon, I'll only watch movie adaptations of books! I'll need them acted out for me...

  2. lol. you SAY no pressure, and yet. ;) i'm curious to know how you've progressed.. what IS it like? having never actually tried an e-reader, i'm in no position to comment. the practicality of the thing's compelling.. but i'm hesitant. the physicality is such a major part of it. and increasingly so, i think, where a book is about its words, yeah, but also its font face, and white space, and the texture of its pages. or the smell of them. and the MARGINS! and the concept of e-reading rewards is just condescending, really. as though reading it for its own sake isn't enough. although, i suppose i'm doing the same thing with goodreads, or favourite books on facebook .. charting this steady accumulation of read materials. still, i think it might be a little symonymous with space food. you know, in terms of actual content, just as good as three courses at a nice restaurant, but in a convenient little pouch, for expedient, anti-gravitational (tasteless) consumption. ;) but how are you finding it?

  3. I'm reading Vanity Fair right now on the e-reader and thus far, it's been a surprising pleasure. Not complete perfection, but pleasurable nonetheless. I have the Kobo Touch -- you turn the pages by touching the screen. The screen isn't back-lit like our phones or laptop screens so it doesn't really have that electronic-ness about it. They use some sort of "ink-screen technology" that makes the screen LOOK like the page of a book. It's not the same, no. Definitely not. I'm certainly aware while I'm reading that I'm using a...device. I love messing up my books by cracking them and folding them over (makes it feel like home), and I have missed that SMELL. It's different. Not bad different, just different. I'm still enjoying the book and it's the book that keeps me coming it's serving its purpose.

    And the rewards--I must sheepishly admit--I enjoy!

  4. P.S. I love your poetry. Seriously. It made me sit still and percolate. It made me stare out into the twilight, hand on chin. I love, love it. So glad you let me find it. Thank you, indeed.

  5. I too reluctantly, kicking and screaming joined the dark side. I must admit that the beautifully-lit, font of any size e-readers make my over 50 eyes sing with joy. I think it will take an extremely long time, if ever, that my conversion to full blown technology-based reading wil be complete, if ever, but I am well on my way!