The following links on reading or using e-books sparked this entry of mine. (Links from Steve Shervais, a friend, writer, and systems scientist who has little time for reading or writing when he’s teaching, but is incredibly adept at skimming the Web for interesting articles and essays):

Reading
vs
Snacking

Note, this isn’t the monologue of a luddite, nor does it try to synthesize/summarize the volumes written about paper vs. online and their ability to save or behead the publishing industry–both with their advantages and disadvantages, often tied to subforms of each, and access to them.

I was in Powell’s City O Books yesterday working away from work (am there again now after being excused from jury duty, taking a break before heading into the office) bathing in the comfort and inspiration of 10 foot high loaded bookcases, and thinking about how a book’s physical presence, volume, mass, color gives me immediate tactile, emotional, olfactory, and visual feedback, a sense of how it will fit into my life from its start to finish (first impressions are often wrong–being a longtime book lover, I recognize book lust now when I feel it, and often carry a volume with me for a bit before buying or checking it out to let my hormonal response settle).

I like reading online–but typically only short pieces: articles, essays, and other materials harder to find quickly or easily (or at all) in the limits of a single store or library. I do have a lot of e-books, essays, and stories in different formats on my laptop, because they’re portable en masse, give me a convenient welcome alternative to work when the computer’s open, and they were free–but reading novels on the screen is usually a last resort for me (there’s a free seat on the commuter train and I don’t have anything in print to read, etc.).

Unlike paper-based books, e-books are elusive, never requiring a commitment, and fall too easily into the model encouraged by Internet browsing–they encourage snacking. Word bites. (Don’t we already snack far too much than is healthy–people often confusing snacking with sampling for the purpose of evaluation.)

I’m also never excited by opening an e-book. It has no presence to remind me that it needs to be read. I am sometimes moved to respond by reading some online material, but almost never inspired to originate. A book, however, will often kick my ass after only a page or passage. It’s a source of creative frisson (with fresh pepper, if I’m lucky).

Maybe we’re the last generation who will view books as a paper-based format. I’m not a luddite and like adapting to technology, but no longer for its own sake. I’d like to have an e-book reader that gives me more than my bookshelves can hold, that connects me to libraries, and that I can cozy up with. Maybe the next gen, or gen squared, will develop electronic books and readers that ground and inspire them in the same way that paper does for us, and hopefully in new ways.

Or maybe books shouldn’t be too easy to get. The online model encourages ownership (or rental) of far more books than we can read. It encourages dipping (often desirable second time around and very easy in an e-book–perhaps that’s the real market for them). Online storage never gives us the real sense of how many books we have and our duty to them. Online, they’re just lists, pictographic or text. Often accompanied by advertising (if you liked Joybuzz, you’ll love Shocking Tales Over Tea) prodding you into the next purchase. It isn’t long before you discover (and maybe not if you’re lucky) that the e-reading model is more about collecting and contributing to meta data, into lists of books, talk about books, uninformed opinions about books, than in the narratives and ideas and actions they inspire.

Closing bits: A book also doesn’t have DRM (yet). And it doesn’t bluescreen. And without books on my living room walls, there’d just be paint.

Time to return to work and, this evening, my own overly patient pile of books on the bedstand.

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