Monday, June 18, 2012

The Reading Experience

I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about e-readers. From an author’s perspective, e-readers are life savers. They provide that extra boost in book sales by catering to the busy, impatient, and conservative consumers who like to read but just can’t fit it into their lifestyles. They allow writers to write more and publish faster. We can set lower prices and reach wider audiences.

As a reader, I see some benefits as well. If I feel like reading a particular book, I can do so right now. I don’t have to gas up my car or put on socks and shoes. I don’t have to hop from store to store to find the book. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I don’t even have to stand in line or wait for shipping. Just click, and it’s mine. In my house, I have a separate room dedicated to books. It was a dining room in a former life, but now it is a library. In my library, I have hundreds of books of all sizes and all genres. I have so many books, that they no longer fit on the wall-to-wall shelves I set up. They are stacked on the floor, spilling into other rooms, and just taking over my life. I love every one of them.

Imagine if I took every one of those books and dropped them into my purse. Obviously, it’d have to be a purse the size of a U-Haul truck, but it would be cool to have them with me all the time. As it is, I already carry 135 audiobooks on my MP3 player, 135 books in the palm of my hand. I can do that with my Kindle. I can take every book in my library and carry them all around in a single electronic device. It’s like magic. How exciting for a bookaholic! Can it get any better than that?

I had my reservations about e-reading. First, I just assumed that an e-reader would display pages exactly as a computer does, in pixels and refresh rates. I already spend too much time on my computer, to the point that my eyes throb at night and I can still see blinking spots even when my lids are closed. I even readjust the resolution in my dreams so I can see them better. The Kindle surprised me, though. When I first pulled it out of the box, there was a printed message on the screen that said something like “Fully charge your Kindle before using it for the first time.” I thought that the message was a sticker and I spent hours trying to peel it off. It turns out, it was the electronic display! The Kindle displays text as if it just came off a printer. It’s the neatest thing. I can’t even describe it except to say that every digital page looks like a printed page. It does not look electronic. It doesn’t even look real. I was seriously in awe, running around showing everyone. I charged up the device and downloaded my Kindle PC library and then purchased a handful of cozy mysteries. In four days, my Kindle never left my hand. It was a very interesting way to read. I didn’t have to turn pages or hold the book open or use a bookmark. It was all very convenient. The Kindle (and probably the Nook and other readers) is well designed with the avid reader in mind.

But while the Kindle has readers in mind, it fails to appease the book lover. In that respect, there were several downfalls. The biggest for me was the absence of a cover. I know that for my own books, I submit a cover with my e-books, but I guess the big publishing companies don’t bother. Book covers are important. They make one book stand out from another and for me, they help me recognize and pick out the book I want to read. My Kindle is not in color. I chose this one on purpose because of its battery life. But even in black and white, I expect to see book covers in my library. Instead, all I see is a list of titles, sometimes not even the whole title if the title’s too long. I select a book and am taken to the title page. When I open a book, the first page I want to see is its cover, not the title page. I want the real-book experience of choosing a book by its cover. I have a very visual mind. I don’t memorize book titles, but I do remember what the books look like. With a hundred book titles in my list, how am I supposed to remember that “The Anatomy of a Chemical Component” is a fantasy novel about alchemy or that “The Mysteries of Pixels and Poison” is a true story about hackers? I need a visual reference to guide me.

Another element missing from the equation is the book summary, typically found in the back matter of a paperback or inner sleeve of a hardcover. Again, how am I supposed to keep track of all these books if I don’t remember what they are about? All those cozy mysteries that I downloaded were part of the same series. Naturally, I wanted to read them in order. But I had trouble figuring out what each book was about, let alone the order in which they were written. I had to go to Amazon (using my iPhone, not the Kindle’s lame “experimental” browser) to read each summary and jot down the order. Not very efficient and definitely not the best book lover experience.

What about having to recharge your book? Even though my Kindle advertised a two-month battery life, mine lasted a week. Imagine my horror when I was just about to read the “whodunit” and my Kindle blinks off and is replaced with a message of “Recharge your battery.” I had to wait hours for the device to recharge so I could find out who the murderer was.

It was a big eye-opener for me. I found myself pondering the potentially disastrous future of depending solely on e-readers. Yikes, can you imagine such a dystopian world?

Mrs. Future Teacher:  Where is your homework, Johnny? Did your dog eat it?
Johnny: No, of course not, Teacher. He doesn’t like plastic. If you must know, my battery died.
Mrs. Future Teacher: Gasp! Oh you poor thing. I’ll give you another week to complete it.

The idea of e-readers replacing books terrifies me, even more so because it’s a very real possibility. I don’t believe it’ll be a conscious decision of every consumer in a single day but rather a gradual transformation. We book lovers adore our books. I can sit in my library for hours just staring at my collection and maybe sifting through a book or two. I love my books. I love the cover art and the design and texture of the pages. I love the craftsmanship and even the smell of a book. But reality suggests that it is no longer practical nor logical to have a physical library like mine. An entire room that holds nothing but books? It’s crazy. Ten years ago, there was no choice. If you had a large collection, this was the way to do it. Today it is much less necessary, and as new generations are born into this increasingly digital world, physical libraries may eventually grow scarce.

To be honest, I feel like a traitor. I feel like a traitor because not only do I now read e-books but I enjoy doing so. Every time I download an e-book, a print book is left behind. Some people might say I’m helping to save trees. I’m helping to kill books is what I’m doing. I’m contributing to the death of a timeless tradition. By downloading digital versions, I am saying to the world that I can live without paperbacks. Others are doing the same. E-books are already a popular trend, but very soon trend will outweigh tradition and paperbacks will become a thing of the past. So what is to be done about it? I don’t think there’s anything that can be done. I’ll never give up my library in my lifetime and will never completely stop buying physical books. But I can’t stop evolution. I can’t stop humans from seeking easy, fast, convenient, cheap, and lazy. I do it myself. It’s only natural.

I do hope, however, that future generations never forget what it’s like to turn a page.


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