Defending the E-Book Reader
After moving from Brooklyn Heights to Forest Hills—a move that was, glamorously enough, reported on in the New York Times—I found myself facing longer subway rides to Manhattan and Brooklyn. What better way to help pass this extra time, I thought, than to get an e-book reader? A fun new gadget would persuade me to read more, I reasoned, and make it more convenient to read during any subway situation, whether it be sitting, standing, or packed into a rush hour cattle car pressed against a steel-jawed hedge fund manager on one side and a Hare Krishna missionary on the other. You gotta love New York.
An e-book reader would also make buying books cheaper, cut down on the mass of my physical belongings (I have enough heavy books already) and allow me to read knowing no trees were killed because of me. What was not to like?
For me, nothing. I have been pleased in every way with my Barnes & Noble Nook (I chose it over the Kindle because I found it more attractive and I figured I might as well support a former employer). But not everyone is so enamored.
Nick Bilton, writing for the Times’ Bits blog, reported that some coffee shops and other eating or drinking establishments around the city have begun instituting no-computer policies which extend to any device that has a screen and requires electricity, including e-book readers. Bilton expressed frustration that he was immediately asked to put his Kindle away when he planned to read while having his drink.
He challenged the shop’s employee to explain what the difference to the shop was between him reading a Kindle or a physical book, and of course got no answer. As a new e-book reader owner myself, I empathized, but many of the blog’s commenters such as someone called JJJ, did not:
“I mean what kind of insecure loser gets bent out of shape because a business won’t let him play with his kindle or gameboy for five minutes? And despite being denied one more opportunity to show-off your latest gadget, was it really necessary to make an honest employee feel small for trying to enforce store policy?”
Bilton’s post was later mentioned on the Times’ City Room blog, and there, some comments, like that of a commenter named George, got downright vicious:
“And, no, a Kindle or iPad etc. is not, a never will be a real book.
A book has substance. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. A book has context — it is it’s own reference. A reader can flip real pages back and forth, dog-ear them if he likes etc. And there’s yet to be a printed book that cannot be read because its battery just died.
I don’t care if you can carry a “library” of a thousand e-books on your Kindle — chances are you haven’t really read them — you’re just enamored with the gadget.
And that’s the biggest problem. You digi-freaks are enamored with the gadget — not with the content.”
Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple developers are readying a dog-earing app for iBooks as we speak, I doubt that would quell George’s concerns. And while most are probably not as virulent about it as George, I have heard similar anti-e-book opinions from friends, including highly literary-minded ones like Les Chappell.
I have a fundamental issue with opinions like George’s though. To say that an e-book “will never be” a real book implies that e-books have to go through a sort of trial before we know whether they will be accepted as real books. The coffeeshops in Bilton’s piece certainly seem to support that. But to me, it’s clear that a book is a book, whether it’s printed on wood pulp, read by a voice actor on a CD, or typed entirely on a Japanese cellphone. The content is what makes a book. You can’t judge whether something’s a book by its format.
If someone’s personal preference is for traditional books because they value their weight or smell or whatnot, of course that’s their right. And I understand why the e-book might be a bit more jarring to tradtionalists than the mp3 or the blu-ray, because music and movies have always required some form of machinery to experience, while books have not.
But despite that fact, I think that literature is the art form that is in fact the least likely to be substantively changed by its more high-tech form. It’s clear that mp3 downloading has deemphasized complete albums in favor of individual songs. And one could argue that the spate of deleted scenes, alternate endings and who-knows-what-else that is found on DVDs or blu-rays has changed how we experience movies.
And while I’d be reluctant to argue that any of theses changes to music or film are seriously negative, it’s hard for me to see what, if any, similar changes befall a book when it’s formatted as an e-book.
I hardly think book lovers would choose, if given the option, to download just their favorite chapters and read them over and over. And George’s suggestion that the owners of e-book readers download books just to amass the most impressive digital collection is, to me, the most ridiculous claim of all. I believe it is in fact far, far more likely that one would purchase traditional books for this purpose. Stocking a bookcase with impressive-looking, never-opened covers is a believable act of ostentation; downloading digital files onto your e-book reader where they remain essentially invisible until called up is not.
I’ve also heard it said that e-books threaten the publishing industry as a whole, and I have two thoughts on that. First, I generally believe that the public should never be forced or even urged to use older technology for the sake of preserving the economic status quo. And second, I get the feeling that, much like the battle over mp3 file sharing, the people who will really get hurt by a large scale shift to e-books are publishing corporations who fail to adapt rather than authors. The potential the e-book holds for self-publishing seems to me even greater than that of the mp3 for the musician, since literature is less dependent on marketing and whatever else publishing companies do than the music industry is.
When it comes down to it, I don’t think there is anything different going on here than when Johannes Gutenberg first put movable metal letters down on paper in 1439. As the printing press spread and books became common, governments feared they would contain revolutionary ideas and churches feared they would distort the Bible.
The issues today may be different, but the ethic, in my mind, should stay the same: Written information, in any and all of its forms, should be tolerated, uncensored, and free to be read in coffee shops. That’s my position. Others can continue the debate. But in the meantime, I’ll be over here, happily reading an e-book.