On E-reading

Last night, unable to sleep, I went looking for books at the library and then, when I failed to find anything of interest, bought a few from a bookstore. That I did this at two in the morning only struck me as wondrous about an hour into reading the book that finally grabbed my interest (Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz, and it’s awesome, if you too have been bitten by the 1920s bug).

Insomnia leads to rumination, so as I lay on the couch, my pondering of the thrill of instant gratification yielded to memories of other kinds of gratification. I believe it was Remembrance, by Jude Devereaux, that was my first hardcover purchase. (Can this be right?) It was 1994; I was fourteen years old and I had a bit of a cash flow problem, as fourteen year olds generally do, and I babysat with the specific intention of saving up for the momentous event of this book’s release. It seems to me, in my dim recollection, that this was the first book Devereaux had published in (what seemed to my fourteen year old self, at any rate) a very long time. I had planned ahead for it, carefully lining up income opportunities, and informing my parents, very seriously, that they would need to deliver me to the bookstore at 11AM (opening time) The Day Of. And because my parents are awesome, they did exactly that.

I walked out with that hardcover feeling so high, so triumphant, that I can still recall the walk with perfect clarity.

I had many such experiences in years following. Once I discovered AAR, their “Upcoming Releases” page became my first stop on the internet on those occasions when I mustered to the computer lab in my dorm to experiment with this thing called “The World Wide Web.” I had a little notebook in which I kept a list of books, sorted by date, that I needed to save for and buy. And oh, the anxiety of going into the bookstore, not knowing if the book would be there, if it had sold out already, if I was going to have to hop the subway (for I was in NYC by this time) to make the forty-five minute trek downtown when I had class in two and a half hours but who cares because I really *needed* this book, ASAP.

And then, the library visits! Seriously, I collected library memberships by the bushel. Oakland, Berkeley, West Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco: none of you were safe, in the summers. At my boarding school, I was the only student I knew with a membership to the town’s public library. At college, joining NYPL was my last stop of move-in day. In my head, I was an elite hunter, a sophisticated and merciless tracker of books; I entered these libraries like an assassin, intent on leaving no good book spared. I felt…ridiculously glamorous and self-important as I corralled the books that other library-goers had somehow, in their carelessness, missed or forgotten to check out. Again, my triumph, in exiting with a new release I’d had the unbelievable good luck to find on the shelf (no doubt two seconds after its return, or so I imagined) gave me the sort of giddy elation other people look for in shady drugs manufactured in basements.

For the most part, complaints about e-readers puzzle me. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the peculiar, sensual appeal of paper. I like to dog-ear and underline. Being brutal to my books was how I showed them love. As a kid I was so jealous of friends who loved their stuffed animals enough to wear away eyes and noses; I could never invest the time; feeling bad for my animals’ clear signs of neglect, I’d rub them over the gritty surface of the sidewalk to manufacture signs of wear and tear. But my books? Those required no extra treatment. Row upon row, shelf upon shelf, their spines were cracked, their pages bent, their covers creased, and I was proud of that. My friends whose books looked untouched roused my silent suspicion when they claimed to love to read.

In other words, I get the longing for paper. I understand intimately the pleasures of a physical interaction that registers one’s involvement with words.

But that alone is not enough to diminish my love of the miracle that is e-readers. Last summer, marooned at 12,000 feet above sea level, much nearer to the equator than my sunblock was apparently designed to handle, and much farther from English-language bookstores than I could like, I nevertheless read a book every thirty-six hours, thanks to the Sony Pocket Reader I’d stuffed to the gills before leaving home. To risk a really vulgar and possibly offensive analogy, for which I hope you’ll pardon me: my e-reader felt to me much as I imagine a stocked liquor cabinet feels to someone who’s developing a drinking problem: I felt safer, more comfortable, somehow *settled* in myself, knowing that I had a good supply of books to see me through my Peruvian summer. But I also felt anxious, uneasy, to know I had so many, many books available at the touch of a button. And in the course of the summer I came to understand this curious anxiety a little bit better, because I found that for me, e-reading is a very different game than reading in paper—and here is where my ambivalence about e-reading truly lies.

For a book addict, once the thrill of the hunt is removed, once the chase is no longer required, the experience of reading changes, somehow.

I find myself skipping from book to book like a madwoman.

I find myself ripping through the electronic pages at a pace that leaves me feeling at once glutted and vaguely nauseated.

I find my greed expanding exponentially, with no obstacles to regulate it.

And, of course, I find that I miss the signs and tokens—the bent pages, the cracked spine—that visually register the interior journey I took through a story.

My e-reader is my personal Xanax for travel: if I know I never will be without a book, I have no doubts about my journey. For the same reason, it also comforts me on sleepless nights. But I confess: I miss the chase. I miss the thrill of victory when books seemed objects that required careful planning, strategizing, and even a bit of luck to obtain. And I miss, above all, what I might call…the *friction* of paper books.

I mistrust myself with my e-reader. In its thrall, I’m becoming a different sort of reader. Sometimes, now, when I have a paper version in my hands, I forget to dog-ear.

This is useless romanticism. I’ll never give up my e-reader, and clinging to it does not mean that I must stop reading paper or that paper is dying. But such are the thoughts born of a sleepless night.


17 thoughts on “On E-reading”

  1. For me, switching my purchasing from the Sony to the Kindle has helped make my book buying more reasonable, because of the free book samples. I make it a policy, and only very rarely break it, to download and read the free sample before buying the book. My sign that I’m on a binge is that the Kindle gets cluttered with more free samples than I have time to read. Usually I let them stay there, because they serve as reminders of books I’m interested in. I shudder to think how much $$$ I’d have spent by now if it hadn’t been for that free sample feature.

    • Yes, the Resident Archaeologist has a Kindle which he adores. He likes to agitate me by proclaiming its general superiority. So far I have resisted the lures, but my will, it is faltering…

  2. First, the insomnia: one melatonin tab. It’s harmless and it works.

    Paper books: I still regret losing a box of books during my many moves during/after college, and these days I have to explain to my roommate why some books go to the UBS and others CAN’T leave the house under any circumstance. I have a really nice fabric cover for my paperbacks, and I get that giddy elation you speak of when I see it because there’s something wonderful inside.

    ebooks: I embrace them. The experience is different than paper, for sure, but I inherited a gadget gene from my dad. I have an iPod Touch and an iPad (purchased after a particularly intense Stuart Smalley affirmation session). Name any ereader app and I have it. Then I took a good look at my brother’s Kindle when we were on vacation, realized he could read outside with it, and finally bought one (hey, the Touch is starting to not hold a charge; a Kindle is cheaper than replacing an Apple product and its battery lasts FOREVER).

    You can still chase after ebooks. I know I do. I visit booksontheknob and dailycheapreads to see what’s been discounted or is temporarily free. I’ve scored some major hits (Dorothy Dunnett’s KING HEREAFTER) and found new-to-me authors (I just finished two Barbara Samuel books). It’s envigorating, and I think you should put on your pith helmet and grab a machete (well, a debit card would be more effective, but you get my drift). Books will probably be available in hologram form someday, and that’ll be fine with me, too.

    • Those iPads are absolutely gorgeous. I was lucky enough to sit across the aisle (diagonally behind) someone who was using one on my last flight, and simply ogling the thing kept me entertained for a good hour!

      Did I know you were a fellow Dunnett fan? Somehow I’m not surprised. 😉

  3. This is what your e-reader is destroying:

    “I had planned ahead for it, carefully lining up income opportunities, and informing my parents, very seriously, that they would need to deliver me to the bookstore at 11AM (opening time) The Day Of. And because my parents are awesome, they did exactly that.”

    “But I confess: I miss the chase. I miss the thrill of victory when books seemed objects that required careful planning, strategizing, and even a bit of luck to obtain. And I miss, above all, what I might call…the *friction* of paper books.”

    The next generation will not get to experience that because authors and readers are abandoning bookstores. I’m sorry that you are perplexed as to why people wouldn’t like e-readers. Considering the fact that bookselling has been my lifelong profession and because of “convenience” you and others would prefer to give your money to a big box e-tailer. Well, when my doors are closed and I and other booksellers can no longer recommend your books to new readers then where will authors be? I know you don’t think you need us, and that we don’t perform a valuable enough service but to my 500 or so regular customers I am the person they come to for recommendations and reviews. I personally sold two cases of Private Arrangements to my customers because I thought it was that good. I sold two cases of a complete unknown author’s first book in a very small town. Multiply those sales by thousands of indie bookstores around the country.. It’s very easy to think that every reader is on Facebook or knows/cares what AAR or Romantic Times is but that is simply not the case. I’m not saying that an e-reader does not have its place, I’m just saying that maybe sometimes we need to stop and think about what we WILL lose before we give something unwavering devotion.

    • Michelle, I certainly share your concerns, and I certainly didn’t mean to declare myself anti-bookstore when I said my e-reader has its wondrous aspects! I think most of the people who have bought e-readers are people who love books, and what pretty much all book lovers have in common is a fierce and abiding love of bookstores.

      When you say we think we don’t need you, I believe you are referring to authors. I can’t answer that meaningfully from my author persona, because I have pretty much zero control over where or how, or in what form, Simon & Schuster distributes the books I write. If you mean that you see authors on-line more often than in bookstores, I’d reply that I’m glad to give readings at any bookstore that will have me! In the interim, I ramble into the world wide ether. 🙂

      But as a reader, I can give you a definite answer to your assertion that I think I don’t need you: you’re absolutely mistaken. Bookstores have been my favorite haunts since I was old enough to read. As an adult, I plan my vacations and road trips around the various indies I want to visit. It would truly grieve me beyond measure if I were to see the day when bookstores were no more.

      I therefore hope very much that you are wrong in thinking that e-reading threatens an end to bookstores — but I completely understand your fears.

      It sounds like you have personal experience with how the book market has contracted since the rise of big-box e-tailers and the start of the recession. Authors feel that too, albeit more indirectly than it sounds like you have, and we regret it too, and I cannot imagine a single writer who would wish to see venues for her books disappear, particularly when those venues are peopled by passionate book lovers who personally know their customers, such as you. That’s an irreplaceable loss to us (as readers as well as writers).

      But for me, at least, having an e-reader has not meant abandoning bookstores. I’ve had my Sony Pocket for over a year now, but I remain a very regular customer of brick-and-mortar, for some of the reasons I mentioned in the above post. I don’t think I’m alone in that. It comes back, again, to the fact that people with e-readers are people who love books, and we’ll get them anywhere and everywhere, and a lot of us still do prefer paper.

    • Michelle,

      Thank you for handselling myself. And thank you for handselling other authors. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.

      One great disadvantage of ebooks is that–I believe research has shown–instead of democratizing the market, it widens the gap between the bestsellers and everyone else.

      I know for certain that many, many reader out there do not visit AAR or reader blogs. They depend on the recommendation of trusted booksellers and the visual of books on shelves to discover new authors and new releases. It saddens me terribly that we have fewer and fewer retail outlets where passionate and knowledgeable booksellers can thrill readers with books they might not have picked up on their own. I know our chapter hosted two local booksellers one year for lunch and had a wonderful discussion and then the next year we saw them and they were both out of a job and looking to get hired at a call center. 🙁

      I hope you and your bookstore stick around for a long, long time and introduce readers to many more wonderful authors and many more wonderful books.

  4. Michelle,

    When I say that I embrace ebooks, it doesn’t mean that I don’t buy print books. On the contrary, I go so far as to buy books I love in both formats. I just happen to be a gadget junkie. I wish you many more years of successful bookselling, and I know your customers must think of you as an invaluable resource.

  5. Just a quick note to let Meredith’s readers know that today at Dear Author, we’re giving away Pocket Books titles, including Meredith’s upcoming A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal. To enter the giveaway, go to dearauthor.com for more info.

  6. First, I have to say that, Meredith–I finished Scandal today and just loved it so much. It was painful in a good way, if that makes any sense. I mentioned on another board that it reminded me of Sherry’s NQAH in that both books have that moment where the heroine has her trust ripped away and she can no longer look at the hero in the same way–and as a reader you want to skip to the end to make sure they understand each other at the end (of course they will, but sometimes I have to make sure!)

    As far as ereaders go–I am a convert as of Christmas when my husband surprised me with a Kindle. I buy all my new books in digital format, but I still visit my favorite UBS regularly to find older titles that are not available on Kindle–and there are a LOT of those. I never pictured myself falling so deeply in love with a gadget but I can’t imagine not having one now. I have a very small house and like to keep almost every book I read, so my family is thankful I have a new way to hoard titles.

  7. Lisap, thanks so much for stopping by. I’m so glad to hear that you liked ALLiS! And to hear it compared to my favorite book of Sherry’s is a great compliment indeed. 🙂

    Your comment just adds to the temptation I’m battling regarding a Kindle purchase. I’m starting to think it’s no coincidence that all the Kindle owners in my acquaintance have fallen completely in love with e-reading… Perhaps the device offers a certain aesthetic pleasure that my own e-reader doesn’t. I’ll ask the archaeologist if I can borrow his for a day or two and see if my hunch is right!

    (And, yes — hoarding books is the most delicious pastime, isn’t it?)

    • Yes, borrow his. Just hold the very slightly textured shell and look at the soothing screen…the words just beg to be read. Ahhhh. (not addicted at all-I can stop anytime I want.) 😉

  8. Hey Meredith, you know that iPad I mentioned? Well, it’s had a little cousin named Kindle With Special Offers move in, and they’re getting along exceptionally well. The Kindle likes to ride around with me, whereas the iPad is a stay-at-home device.

    And the Special Offers are like (I’m assuming) high grade heroin.

    • Ha! I’m entertaining a hilarious mental image here of your little Kindle strapped into the passenger’s seat, bouncing with excitement, while the iPad stays home and does the cooking and cleaning…

  9. As a first-time poster, I just wanted to pop in to say that I was late to work this morning (luckily, I still managed to beat the boss) finishing up A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal. I’m still debating with myself—this may be my favorite of your books yet. I love Nell’s unique voice and, of course, Simon is a to-die-for hero. Thanks for the terrific read.

    Coincidentally, I read the book on my Kindle, which I love with an unholy passion. I didn’t think I would, and was a bit resistant when I received my first one as a gift a little over a year ago. But I was quickly smitten for all the same reasons you mentioned (and more). I’ve since upgraded to the newest Kindle, and have bought the K3 and DX for other family members. Converts!

    Of course, I still buy “real” books. I buy from every conceivable source—indie stores, big box stores, Amazon, used book stores, etc. Often (as is the case with yours and Sherry’s books) I have both paper and ebook versions of the books just to make sure I’m covered. But I am trying to curb my “real” book habit: I’m simply running out of space! (Heck, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m even running out of space on my Kindle!)

    And, yes, someone also gave me an iPad, so I can read on that, too. It’s not great for “regular” books, but is good for poetry, as well as history/nonfiction—things with artwork, pictures, charts, graphs, etc.—that the Kindle doesn’t accommodate very well.

    I literally carry my Kindle, iPad, and at least one PB with me everywhere. If I’m ever stuck in an elevator over the weekend, I may starve and have hygiene issues, but at least I’ll have something to read, gosh darn.

    Sorry to jump into the middle of the discussion, but I wanted to second some of the thoughts that the love of one medium doesn’t automatically preclude a love of another.

    Thanks again!

    • Susan, jump into the discussion any time! Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m delighted that you liked A Lady’s Lesson so much!

      I’d say what’s emerging here is a true consensus: ownership of e-reading devices is a pretty good indicator of a bookworm who voraciously consumes books in every format available to her.

      I hear you on the space issue, too. We’re moving in a couple of weeks and my bookshelves (all eight of them!) are starting to look very, very intimidating… 😉

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