“I have to have a book in my hands” – Digital vs. Print books
November 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
The debate about the merits of e-readers over books has been raging since the Kindle rose to popularity. There are those who condemn the e-reader for the downfall of the major book stores, and to some extent, I sympathise with that perspective. Yes, e-books led to a decline in the sale of hard-copy books. When the three-story Borders in the middle of my city closed, Brisbane lost something special. Jobs were lost and an important part of the cityscape was gone. I felt this loss acutely, as I visited Borders several times a week since early high school.
But something has begun to bother lately: the statement that one must have an “actual book” in order to read. If I had a page for every time someone said to me, “Oh, I can’t use an e-reader, I need to hold a real book”, I’d have a tome the size of War and Peace. Now, I believe you when you say this. Really, I do. But you’re missing out.
Books are irreplaceable. This, I will not deny. E-readers and digital books cannot replicate the feeling of opening an anticipated book to its first page, or the exhilaration of turning its final one. Books are emotional objects. Every book I own holds a memory – where I got it, why I bought it, how I enjoyed it, the people I shared it with. My first edition of The Hunger Games, with its childish cover and Scholastic branding, is evidence that I trusted my good friend’s recommendation enough to read it long before Jen stepped into Katniss’ worn leather boots.
My copy of Fight Club has seen better days. I’m pretty sure that someone I loaned it to spilled beer on it, but it kind of added to its authenticity, in a meta-fictional sense. My Harry Potter novels are in perfect condition, so much did I treasure them, but their pages are beginning to yellow with age. My handwriting, on the top right corner of each title page, gets more and more legible with each volume, as I grew up in time with my collection’s expansion.
My collection of books is testament to my obsession with fiction. I long since gave up on using a bookshelf. My last one collapsed in on itself with the weight of my books, so for now, three quarters of my collection is housed in air-tight crates. The remaining quarter of it is sitting in stacks all around my house. You’ll find my books on the arms of chairs, under my bed, on my desk, on my living room table. It makes me happy to see all my messy, mismatched editions sitting cheerfully on top of one another, wherever you look in my house. I love to lend my books to others, especially when someone has taken me up on a recommendation. I’ve lost more than a few books to irresponsible readers, but somehow, it’s worth it. Well, mostly.
Above all, my favourite thing about hard-copy books, though: bookstores. I go to a bookstore nearly every day: Second-hand book shops, with unimaginable range and unshakeable character; on-trend book stores with tattooed staff and eclectic selections of vintage novels; academic bookstores with hidden gems tucked in amongst the scholarly volumes; and a specialty bookstore with a genre-specific catalogue and staff patient enough to sit through my constant questions about upcoming releases and ETAs on my many, many orders. If I only ever bought e-books, I would lose out on the richness of these stores, and the books I would never have picked up if they hadn’t been recommended to me by someone who has come to know my tastes. This is what I’m paying for when I buy my novels in hard-copy. These are the experiences that are as much a part of my book collection as the tomes themselves.
However, does not mean that my e-reader does not have value in its own right. Tucked inside a pocket of my hand-bag is an entire collection: hundreds of books, literally at my fingertips. I think I first began to truly appreciate my e-reader when I was reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. If you haven’t heard of WoT, each of the fourteen novels is enormous. Having the entire collection on my e-reader meant that when I finished a book mid-bus ride, I could just open up the next with no pause at all.
Obviously, price is a factor with e-books. With prices so low, I’m much more tempted to try an author or genre that I wouldn’t risk my spending my money on in hard-copy. And thanks to Project Gutenburg, there are many e-books available for free. I have a small confession to make, also. I have, at times, read pirated copies of books on my e-reader. I endeavour to be an ethical pirate. When I finally decided to read Ender’s Game, I couldn’t bring myself to give royalty to Orson Scott Card. So I read a pirated copy, loved it, and didn’t have to feel guilty about having supported a homophobic asshole.
On the flipside, digital publishing offers a legitimate, accessible platform for new authors. I recently read, and loved, A SINGLE GIRL’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. I bought this book purely because the title was funny and it was $5.99. It was an excellent read, and I was glad to be able to support a new author. On top of this, I could recommend this book with complete ease over the internet to my international readers, who could own it within seconds if my review persuaded them to read it!
I believe there are those who love books, and there are those who love to read. Of course, you can be both, but I think many people love the idea of being a bookworm more than they love to read. If you truly love to read, the format of the story is secondary to the story itself. The oft-repeated “I have to have an actual book in my hands” is a materialistic sentiment that belittles the author’s work. You think that just because you’re turning the pages on a screen, you’re not reading the book? You’re wrong. Yes, I prefer print books over digital books, but it’s not because I have to hold the book in order to enjoy it. I regularly use my e-reader in order to read books that aren’t available in print format, and if I refused to do so because it was not a physical copy, I would be cutting myself off from an enormously rich market.
My Gran, who endured endless conversation about the books I was reading, would always remind me, “No matter what, you’ll always have your books.” She’s right, of course – I live in the many worlds of the fiction I read. A piece of me resides in Fillory, another in District Thirteen. Most days, my mind has wandered to the Gryffindor common room, or possibly to the decks of the mad ship, Paragon.
I’m dependent on reading. If I’m having a bad day, I console myself with the fact that I can vacate reality and step into fiction. I am a reader. It is what I do, who I am. And I am bewildered by the fact that this is called into question when people see me reading from my e-reader. Read. Read everything, every way.