Why An E-Book Is Not a Book

February 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

A specter is haunting the literary marketplace, the specter of a purely digital world. It is obvious that the new reading technology is part of a larger cultural shift of information to web-based and digital formats. But the e-book evangelists go too far in smugly declaring that the end of the printed book is nigh and anyone failing to recognize this is benighted, foolish, or willful as a child who won’t eat his peas.

Last June, at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, an academic named Alex Halavais proclaimed that the era of the personal library was over. He proceeded to recount in graphic detail the thrill he got in slicing apart books that comprised his personal collection as he painstakingly held each page to his scanner.

We all know that E-readers have been selling well, and no one can dispute the advantages of traveling for business or pleasure with a reading device fitting trimly in your bag or brief case rather than bulky old hunks of paper and glue. Anyone with macular degeneration or impaired vision can create the equivalent of a large-print book. And some people love the advantage of being able to look up a word on the same device that gives them their text.

But, the digital files that contain the words of creative works should not be confused with the printed objects we call books. A book is an artifact with a personality, a physical reflection of its own moment in history. The cover art is an advertisement, and yet, it tells us how the publisher defines it, and for whom the book is intended. The printed book has a look and feel that gives us a sense of the historical period in which it was manufactured. For example, I recently came across a copy of the Grove edition of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, published in 1961, just a few years after the first production of the play at the Arts Theater in Cambridge. The cover art, the paper, the photographs of the original production, give the reader a sense of the social milieu that produced this play.

My books are like friends that I can visit any time. I can recall where I bought the book, or who sent it to me, and this memory is part of the enjoyment I take in the physical object.  The variety of trim sizes, illustrations, paper and ink, add a dimension to the words that e-text in a plastic rectangle will never capture. A book requires no power source to read, emits no electromagnetism, does not leave behind generations of toxic junk, and is most-often recycled by readers without prompting.

Some of my books are inscribed by authors or friends or contain notes I have written in the margins. In the case of used books, the notes one finds on the flyleaf or newspaper clippings tucked into the middle may be alternately creepy or engaging, but they give the reader a connection with the history of the work.

As to the survival of books, the e-mail newsletter Shelf-Awareness reports that Jack McKeown, director of new business development for Verso Digital has updated his survey-supported study of reader attitudes published last year and finds that “e-reader owners are buying as nearly as many print books as e-books.” And, according to an article by Lisa Foderaro published in the New York Times last October, “…a generation of college students weaned on technology appears to be holding fast to traditional textbooks.” The provost and professor James J. O’Donnell wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last June that ereaders have not won him over because “I need particular books, and I need to have several of them open at the same time (with a specialized reference shelf handy).”

So, books are not fading away any time soon.

Amazon’s surprise purging of the digital files of George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, from Kindles in July of 2009, underlines the insecurity of digital ownership.  A story run by NPR last December points out that, “most e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.” The vendor of e-books has the ability to store information not only about what texts you have purchased, how fast or slow you are reading them, how often you open the file, but even your physical whereabouts. At a time when the relationship between large corporations and government has compromised the rights of individuals this ought to give one pause. And publishers ought to worry as well. Although Amazon wishes to do away with print, the problem of online piracy is only just beginning.

Finally, the e-reading trend is not only part of the larger digital revolution, but a chapter in the ongoing story of the internet’s destruction of American brick-and-mortar retail. Empty storefronts are coming to a theater near you.


§ 3 Responses to Why An E-Book Is Not a Book

  • Bobby Keane says:

    I do not believe anyone who looks at these things seriously can claim that an e-book is a replacement for a printed book. You mention inscribed or autographed books and gift books. These are excellent examples of when a print book (analog book) is the only way to go. Same can be said for book collectors – first editions collecting will likely increase as print runs continue to decrease.

    However, your essay veers too quickly into gloom and doom about the e-book. Publishers and authors and book collectors need not adopt a defensive posture about e-books. I am fully confident that e-books will be a boon for the publishing industry as a whole. When was the last time anything having to do with *reading* was in the news and in the vanguard? E-books and e-readers have pushed books back into the media spotlight in a way the industry hasn’t seen in years.

    An answer to some of your concerns about e-books. First, piracy is, and always will be, prevalent. Books have been pirated (xeroxed) and scanned for as long as there have been copy machines. If someone wants something bad enough they will figure out a way to pirate it. E-books do not suddenly make the threat of piracy any more substantial.

    Your assertion that Big Brother can watch you read is a bit distorted. For the paranoid user, Kindle offers the ability to ‘go silent’ so that the device never communicates with the Internet. (For me, having my Kindle “know” where I am in a book is useful. You see, I can read something on my Kindle device at night and continue the next day at lunch by reading on my PC through the Kindle app. It knows where I left off so I can read my book seamlessly.

    You mention art, font, and trim size as adding intrinsic value to books. I agree with you here 100%. However, you must take into consideration that a large percentage of people don’t care about that sort of thing. As a former independent book seller that pains me to admit but the fact is most people just want the story (the content) and don’t care about the packaging.

    Analog books will continue to exist and book collectors like us will continue to buy them but we should all embrace e-books as a natural progression of our industry and a means by which we can stay relevant to the consumer.

    (Oh – and e-books didn’t kill Borders. Bad business practices did. E-books didn’t kill the mom & pop stores, either: B&N and Ingram did.)

  • Bobby Keane says:

    John Evans, a legendary veteran indie bookseller wrote an excellent article today about the future price of print books. His vision should assuage the fears of the analog book lover. http://j.mp/eCirON

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