Monday, November 28, 2011

Helga Recommends: Paper Books

This is not going to be a curmudgeonly anti-ebook rant, because electronic books certainly have their (growing) place in the world, and I have and will continue to make use of them. If your object is simply to read and not to own a book, either format will do, and an ebook will often end up being more convenient. But when it comes to investing in pieces of intellectual and cultural capital, physical books have any number of advantages over their electronic counterparts:

  • Batteries. During the recent power outage in the northeast, I was able to read by candlelight even when I was trying desperately to conserve the remaining power on my various devices. I do not have to have my computer turned on in order to look up a word origin or the history of Norway. In the coming global superpocalypse, I'll still be able to read via the ray of sunshine coming through the bunker airholes, whether or not I have a charge or a signal. (Note to self: Pack Apocalypse Books)
  • Possession. Once I have it in my hot little hands, a book is mine and no one can relieve me of it unless they break into my house and figure out my shelving system. What Amazon and Barnes and Noble give, they have the power to take away. That being said, a house fire would take out both my paper books and all of my electronics. (Note to self: Pack Apocalypse Books in Fireproof Box)
  • Longevity. I can sit down with my son and read books that were read to me as a child. Yes, the same books. Technology is not yet to the point where he will be able to say to his children "this is the ebook that grandma used to read to me when I was little--we can't read it because that file format is obsolete, but there it is on my ancient backup drive." I also have many of my mother's books, including her Regency romance novels, and reading them gives me the feeling of being close to her.
  • Marginalia. In college, developed a complex system of symbols and notes that enabled me to very quickly find relevant pages in the books I had read and, of course, amuse myself with my own witty commentary. Physical books can be marked, tabbed, folded, inscribed, and lent to others who may add their additional commentary. If necessary, they can be thrown across a room in a fit of pique. Someday, ebooks may catch up on this front, but they're not quite there yet.
  • Sharing. I'm sure that it's possible to give the gift of an ebook. One might even be able to e-write some nice sentiment in the front before emailing it to one's friend or relative. But the paper book has a physical presence that says "pay attention to me, the person who gave me thinks I'm important." A physical book can be shared with others, it can be re-gifted, it can be sold to a used bookstore, it can be donated to the library, it can be used to prop up a wobbly table, it can be turned into a purse. The afterlife of paper books is full of possibilities.
  • Price. Bear with me on this one. Ebooks are, in general, less expensive than their newly published counterparts. However, they aren't less expensive enough to make the investment worthwhile, given their instability . . . once purchased, they should be backed up (especially if Amazon moves farther from "sales" to "licensing" and begins removing content again). If the purchaser wants to keep the material for a longer period of time, ebooks will have to be transferred from device to device. The common format today will no doubt be superseded by future formats, which may not be compatible, and so on . . . $1.99 is the maximum price I put on this hassle. If it disappears from my computer, I haven't spent enough to be driven to tears by it. I will bend this rule to get a book by a favorite author that I absolutely couldn't get in any other format without selling a minor body part, as I have to purchase older novellas by Connie Willis.
  • Proximity. When I think about paper books, I think about my collection as a whole. How I have ordered it and re-ordered it. How I can glance at a shelf and pull down a book to see my notes or read a particular passage. How I can easily see a stack of books (or five) I have yet to read, although I have the most sincere intentions toward them. A lot of people find their next read by browsing, and I like to spend time browsing my own shelves until something catches my attention.
I have not purchased as many books since I became a librarian--with so many enticing books paraded before me every day--so the books I do buy tend to have special meaning. Book ownership is, for me, rooted in a feeling of place. Books = home. My family home was decorated with books, therefore I feel better when my walls are covered with books. As a child I saved up my allowance money to buy books that I still own today. I have books my grandmother gave me when I was a child; I have many of my mother's books; I have multiple copies of some books (different editions or duplicates); I have some of my father's books; and I have books that belonged to a grandfather who died several years before I was born. A large part of my history can be pieced together by reading their spines, and I am passing down that history to my son as we read together. The other day we were reading The Monster at the End of this Book; "Please do not turn the page!" doesn't really work in a digital format.*

Feel free to argue with me or provide additional support in the comments.

*There is, however, an app for that.


Katherine C. James said...

Loved this piece. Loved your list.

I have never read an ebook, or listened to an audiobook. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of these facts. Ebooks and audio books are on my list of things to try; I just haven't done so yet. I read articles all the time on my iPhone, less often sitting at my computer, since there's no snuggling into a pretzelled reading position in my desk chair, which is why I need an iPad: I'm going blind from reading lengthy articles on a tiny screen. But, I hesitate. The knowledge that an ebook could be taken back alarmed me when I first read of the phenomenon. My physical books become a part of me. The important ones live in my home in such an intimate relationship with me that I can find them with a sweeping glance by the shape of the text on their spine, by the color of their spine. A paper book can be destroyed by fire or water; the thought makes me shudder. But, still I want their vulnerable, paged-bodies around me. As we change to ebooks, I wonder: what will my books become? Art? Quaint? Vaguely distasteful? Treasures beyond measure? For now, I'm happy to touch my books, feel the paper, turn the pages, smooth my hand against a photo or text that I find has special meaning; hold the book against my heart once it is read, and I am thinking, thinking, thinking: What did it mean? The smell of books, the shapes, the beauty (or not) of a cover design, a page layout, a binding, a spine; it all moves me so deeply. My books are so real to me: I can see them walking about at night stretching their stiff, shelved, selves, then settling back in place when they hear me stir. Their arms—black and spindly arms—reach out to me beseechingly, when they've not been read, or not re-read for too long. (My older brother reads ebooks from the library. He'd think what I've said here is silly. He lightened the material load in his home years ago. Most of his books were sent away, though he's a quick, smart, constant reader.) But, for me? For now? The books stay in their paper form, and my books and I, we continue to hold each other. I keep watch over them. They color my life. They define decades. They place me within a world of fiction and nonfiction that is outside of me and within me.

Helgagrace said...

Yes, and your comment goes into what I didn't explore very much above, about how books are more than content--the design choices for size, and cover, and typography, and so on are often homogenized by the ebook format, even though there are now color readers and so forth.

Recycled Motorcyclist said...

Excellent, absolutely correct and perfectly stated. Paper books are my favorite.

I do enjoy eBooks as well (for convenience, being able to carry a small library everywhere, including work & onto a plane) and audiobooks (great way to make commutes feel less of a waste of time, good way to build momentum in works like Ulysses).

But your statement "Books = home" was a great summary about stuff I've been thinking about.

Thanks for writing this!

rockinlibrarian said...

Really like this, especially the post-apocalyptic book-packing plans!

Helgagrace said...

Thank you!