Friday, July 27, 2012

There is no such thing as a "real" book

Way, way back in 2006 or so, the bookstore where I worked started selling e-readers. I think it was a Sony e-reader, and they tried to make this big push out of it because the store itself was failing (as in they've gone bankrupt and no longer exist, the writing was on the wall even then) and they thought something new and shiny would actually help.

It was almost instant how quickly the "real" books vs. e-books debate started. And at first, part of me was on the "real" books side. But I kept getting drawn back to this e-reader on display, and looking at it. The thing is, I started reading random walls of text online when I was 13, and fanfiction became a big part of my life around 1998 or so. So the idea of reading on a screen wasn't foreign to me. I still recognized some limitations (I don't learn as well reading academic material on a computer instead of on paper, for example) but in general I thought the idea had merit.

But I still held on to this "real" books thing, possibly out of stubbornness. This idea that only if you love physical books could you be a "reader" and that it was a huge house full of book that defined a person. Which was also evident if you went into my guest room, where my bookshelves were, because they filled an entire wall, largely double-rowed, and with extra stacks all over the place.

It took a long time for me to get out of that mode, and I think one of the things that did it for me was traveling a lot. Even for something as simple as going home to visit my parents, I would always pack a book or two with me. Usually two because I wouldn't know what I would be in the mood to read.

Then I started flying around the country to work on my latest film project, and during a trip to Las Vegas last year I only packed one book because I was trying to pack light and I had all this camera equipment. Of course, I ended up finishing my book on the plane to Vegas and spent three days looking around for a bookstore so I would have something to read on the way home.

On top of that, I started noticing a lot of the really great features that technology could bring to reading. I've never been a person who writes in books, it seems disrespectful to me. But an electronic book? I can bookmark favorite pages, highlight quotes I like, write notes in the margins if I felt like. In short, I could do all the things I may have always wanted without any actual lasting damage to the book itself.

On top of that, I could carry hundreds of books, for any mood I might be in, with less weight than a hard cover. Not to mention being able to change the size of the text, the contrast of the letters, and other things that started to make reading more accessible.

It also helped that around this same time the newer generation of e-readers was coming out. They were quickly and efficiently solving a lot of the problems the earliest devices had. Every time a new one is released they add more features that are making books more and more amazing. Children's books that can read aloud to kids or help them learn to read as they go. The ease of jumping back and forth between footnotes and the text (a must if you're reading a Mary Roach book).

So to cling to the idea that a physical printed page is the only thing that counts as a real book is just stubbornness. Yes, it's a different experience. And yes, I still own a wall of books (though they're no longer double-rowed and stacked everywhere, my rule is they must fit on the bookshelves I have, so if I get new books I need to let go of old ones I never reread). Books on paper won't go away any time soon, though bookstores might.

And that is sad, browsing a website is no substitute to browsing a bookshelf for me. It doesn't lead to as many new and weird discoveries.

But I think people who love books and who love reading need to start looking at everything that e-books have to offer us. They're were never designed to somehow steal our books from us, they were designed to give our books to us more easily, to give us a new experience with them, and to help us stop breaking our backs carrying around everything we might want to read at a given time.

E-books are real books. And we can live in a world with both.

This post may or may not have been brought to you by the fact that I got a Nook for my birthday and I've already realized how easy it is to indulge my love of books and getting new/free/bargain books without also ending up with them taking over my guest room.