Friday, January 28, 2011

Reading as an experience: Books vs. "E-Readers"

So, I finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (review coming this weekend) and left it up to the handy random number generator to pick what I would be reading next. I'll leave the next title a surprise until I review Invisible Man, but this book happened to be out of stock at the Cincinnati Public Library. Because of this, I had a choice: I could purchase the book and wait a couple days until it arrived or I could grab it off the internet and throw it on my Sony E-Reader. I settled for the latter and, after a few hours of reading, realized something.

To me, the experience of reading a physical copy of a book is entirely different than that of reading an electronic copy on a device. I realize this isn't a ground breaking realization, and I know that many, many people have discussed the merits (and drawbacks) of electronic readers before me, but I'm going to talk about it anyways. I know the world has been waiting for my late entry to the party.

I have had a Sony E-Reader for a little over a year. I probably never would have purchased it, but I received it for free, so I wasn't going to turn it down. It is a neat little device. While its functions are far inferior to more newly produced devices (including the Ipad), it does what I want, which is to reproduce a reasonable similar copy of a book's page on a screen. Same words, same graphics, etc. The thing is, I have read a total of four books on the device. Four. In that same time period, I have read probably about fifty or so physical copies of books. I will read a book on the E-Reader and then not pick it up until months later.

Why is this? Obviously, the ability to have hundreds of books on a device the size and weight of a slim hardcover novel is amazingly convenient. You can take notes on the pages, bookmark the pages, and best of all: you don't have to drive to the store or the library to get ahold of what you want to read. It is essentially books on demand. It's not that I'm a Luddite. I like to think and am on the upper half of the "early adopter" technology process. By all objective measures, I really should prefer this neat little piece of technology to the reading of actual books.

The thing is, I don't. In fact, other than the convenience factor, I overwhelmingly prefer everything about the process of obtaining and reading a physical copy of a book over that of an electronic copy. I love finding a book at the library (or more rarely, the book store). In fact, I love it so much that I prefer to find the books I need on the shelves than to put a hold on them and have them delivered to me. Perhaps it is my inner child responding to the pseudo-scavenger hunt aspect of it.

What I enjoy even more than this, though, is the experiencing of reading a physical book. I love the weight of a lengthy hardcover in my bag, I love the feeling of a book on my lap, and I particularly love when I manage to get ahold of a very well-produced printing of a book with high quality paper stock. Pushing a button or tracing your finger across a screen just doesn't equal the tactile affair of turning a page. To me, the experience of reading a book is much, much greater than the content within the covers. Just as you pay a premium for more than just the product consumed when you watch a movie at the theatre or enjoy a drink at your favorite bar, a book is more than just a product to me (and I assume many others). To me, one of the greatest experiences I can imagine is sitting outdoors on a sunny, late spring day, reading a great book that you truly enjoy.

That is not to say that e-readers do not have their place. Many types of media, including newspapers and magazines (in my opinion), are already in a format conducive to being read in an electronic format. The sentimentality I hold for books do not extend to newspapers or magazines for the most part. This may have a lot to do with the generation I'm part of and perhaps the next generation will overwhelmingly feel this way about books. Who knows? All I know is that unlike newspapers, books are not going anywhere. Sure, physical book sales may go down as e-reader technology improves and e-book sales rise. In fact, I think that will be probably, especially with the focus on ebooks projects at many libraries.

In all likelihood, there are many people just like me who in fifty (or perhaps even sixty) years from now will be sitting on their rockers on their front porch during a beautiful sunny day marvelling at how wonderful the paper feels under their fingers as one page turns to the next.

P.S. After reading the electronic copy for a bit, I went online and bought a copy of the book. It should arrive today. I suppose I can meet technology half way.