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Monday, 28 May 2012

Books Versus E-Readers






Recently it was Library and Information week at my library. I recalled that the previous year I had co-presented information sessions showing people how to use e-readers. The sessions were popular, as they were this year. Since last year I’ve noticed that e-reader use has increased amongst my fellow train commuters and with library patrons. With bookstore chains such as Borders collapsing (mainly due to online commerce?) and with talk of the possible demise of the book in the media I wonder what we may gain or more importantly what we may lose if e-readers become the medium of choice for publishers and readers alike.

The main thing I took away from presenting the information sessions about e-readers is that I didn’t like them. Some people I know may roll their eyes due to the fact that I don’t even own a mobile phone – but I’m no Luddite. I can understand the convenience of being able to store hundreds of books on one device. They solve the problems of lugging books away with you on holiday, or having to find room to store books you’ve bought over the years. Another advantage is if you need to read a large print version you can just increase the font size, whilst in the book world you need to wait until the large print version is released. Downloading books is also cheaper and saves you time because you don’t have to go to a shop.

There are disadvantages of course. The e-reader can break down and if the data is not backed up then you’ve just lost your collection. I’ve also been told, from a library patron, the tale of a woman who took an e-reader with her on holiday to Bali and the screen failed, leaving her with nothing to read.

Although these are valid issues, my views regarding e-readers are not particularly concerned with their inherent problems, but rather the potential demise of the overall experience that books provide. For a start I don’t like the idea of everything I read looking the same. E-readers are, at the moment, banal looking objects. I love the variety that books offer – the cover artwork, their size, shape, feel and smell. I love the way these objects look on my bookshelf, or scattered about my home. In this way they become a part of your life, reminding you of what you have read and also holding the promise of what you may read next.

A collection of books at home and the books on the shelves in a bookstore offer a sublime sensory experience. Quite simply there is no romance or adventure to be had from e-readers. You can’t book cross with an e-reader and you can’t lend a well-loved and battered old copy of a novel to a friend via an e-reader. You can’t go in search of a first edition copy of your favourite novel with that special cover art or author’s signature – it becomes meaningless in the e-reader world.

I guess what I’m getting at is that e-readers devalue the cultural impact of books. Do we want to live in a world in which books are reduced to data and displayed as pixels on the bland screens of e-readers? In the rush of progress important cultural artifacts can be swept away and almost forgotten about. A good analogy is when compact discs became the principal medium for recorded sound. We gained convenience and a clean sound but lost all the natural warmth and presence that vinyl records provided.

I believe that books will survive the rush towards the digital medium. Vinyl records have survived and over the last twenty years sales have increased steadily. The same situation may come to pass with books. Apparently the recent hardcover book release of Murakami’s novel 1Q84 sold in huge quantities. The allure of a great writer published in a quality format is an indication that there will always be a market for books. Independent bookstores that offer quality books can survive and if you want to experience that special feeling of browsing shelves of books for your next read, you will still be able to indulge yourself.

So, what do you think - e-readers or books? Will books survive or will e-readers become ubiquitous on the morning train to work?

17 comments:

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Do you ever go the Save the Children book sale held at UWA in August, and join the long queue waiting to get in as it opens on the Friday afternoon, and then the crush of people inside searching on and under the trestle tables for secondhand books? I usually go on the Friday, Saturday and the Sunday, and then back for a box of books on the Wednesday if I can manage it, and it seems to me to get busier each year, so I have no doubt that books will survive, even if e-readers are what many people will choose for their holidays or on the train.

    But even in that I prefer to read whatever comes my way when I am on holiday, as the memories of finding and reading the books become integrated with the memories of the trip, so even that won't ever tempt me to buy a Kindle.

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  2. Hi Karyn. I haven't, as yet, gone to that book sale, but I certainly intend to at some stage in the future. I'll have to get some more book shelves however! It's good to know that people are still buying books in big quantities.

    It is doubtful that anyone would ever look at their kindle and have it evoke fond memories of the past.

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    1. Jeremy, I encourage you to think about going this year. I think that book sale is one of the best things about living in Perth. It is just wonderful. I wrote a post about it for another blogger last year, which has a few photos and will give you an idea of what you are missing: http://vintagepenguins.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/save-children-book-sale-at-uwa.html

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  3. Looking at the article I think you've just convinced me. I studied at UWA, so I know the campus well. It would be good to go back.

    Thanks!

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  4. You HAVE to go to that booksale! I go to both the south and north of the river ones. working at UWA doesn't help - I usually go to the sale several times while it is on, during my lunchbreak. Both Marcus and I walk away with bags of books - most not costing more than $8 and in good condition.

    Anyway...e-books. Very popular amongst uni students - for study and leisure, I have noticed. The librarian I work with who has to deal with them, hates them! A technical nightmare in a library setting, but that is electronic technology in general I guess. It really is changing our profession.
    Personally, I like both book and ebook and have an ebook reader. I can see the merits and drawbacks of both.
    I don't think the ebook will ever take over from the book, to be honest..well, not in any hurry, at least. Not everyone has the technology available to them or able to afford it, whilst books are easy to find and you can buy them cheap if you look in the right places.

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  5. This all seems like peer pressure and I'm buying into it! Yeah we're getting more people ringing up asking if they can download e-books via our website, which they can't at the moment. They can come to the library and borrow a few though....

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  6. Geez is that still not available... :) I'm a fan of both, but I must admit I do prefer a real book. I've been treating myself to a few lately, including managing to read gifts I've given to others before they get a chance to read them (bought Caroline 'Religion for Atheists' the other day, I'm enjoying it :) ). Hope all is swell x say hi to E for me

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    1. Hi Colleen. They must wonder why there's is creases and folds through the book? Religion for Atheists has been really popular at the library. All is indeed swell, except for some winter lethargy - E says hi back :)

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  8. Ha! Winter lethargy... Is that much different to Summer lethargy? :) :)

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    1. Are you implying that I'm lethargic in both summer and winter? ;)

      You could be right...

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  9. Hi Jeremy. I have an hour and a bit commute to work every day, and I see a lot of people with fancy ereaders. The main thing that bugs me about this is that I can't check out the cover and see what they're reading! I love spying on what other people are reading on the train. It's even led to a couple of random conversations.

    I'm simply not an ereader person. I find I recall words I read on paper much better than words I read on screens. I love dog-eared pages and wrinkled spines - it gives my books a history, a new story of their own.

    But while I'm not an ebook fan myself, I'm not against them. I don't think they're a bad thing, they're just not MY thing. I think that ebooks and books both have a future.

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    1. Hi Michelle. You are, of course, right. They both have a future. A library patron today told me he had just bought an e-reader but he would continue to buy books - just not as many of them. It should be interesting to see just how it all pans out.

      Got your reviewing mojo back yet?

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    2. I think my mojo might have returned! I don't want to speak of it too loudly, however, in case my mojo takes fright and heads for the hills again. It's temperamental like that.

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  10. The best thing about E-Books are that they don't use paper, thus saving a few billion trees. I guess to keep a few precious books that one loves to revisit again and again is fine.

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    1. Granted - however:

      http://www.unshelved.com/2012-8-15

      Jeremy

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