E-Books: The New Way to Read

By Shoshana Gertler
On March 11, 2012

In 1971, when the first computer was sold to the public, nobody knew – no one truly couldhave known – the phenomenon that would someday sweep the nation and, later, the world. But there it was, in the early morning hours of November 19, 2007. For centuries, books had been printed on paper, bound into pages. Before that there were scrolls, and even those can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptian papyrus. Today, the average reader can avail himself of countless books simultaneously, all retrievable on one little 8-inch-by-5-inch screen. No paper or ink or binding, just a series of zeros and ones in a handheld computer.

Yes, enter the Kindle, a device that has changed the written word in ways readers never could have anticipated. Oh, sure, we all saw the ads, flashing on our laptop screens in an increasingly virtual era. But in the four years that have passed since that morning, a myriad of others have jumped on the e-reading bandwagon. Barnes and Noble with its Nook, Condor Technology with the eGriver, and Sony with the Reader. Ever-present in this whirl of technology is the weighty question: do the benefits of the e-reader outweigh the costs? What is lost when the paper bound book becomes a mere relic of times gone past?

As a staunch book-lover myself – and somewhat of a purist in that regard – my initial reaction to the various e-readers, understandably, was a visceral, all-encompassing no. No waywould I allow this insult to the conventional book's memory to be found in my belongings. But I forced myself, for the sake of professionalism, to take an objective step back. In doing so, I found myself admitting that yes, e-readers do bring something unique to the table. 

The benefits, even to me, are inarguable. The agonizing before every family vacation over which books to pack, and how many, is put to an immediate halt. All of the excessive planning – gone. Beginning to feel your shoulder strain with the weight of consecutive-bio-then-chem-must-bring-your-textbook-to-every-class schedules? Biology and chemistry textbooks – gone.

More than that, says Michelle McConnell, senior editor for an educational software publisher, e-readers make reading more accessible to people with learning disabilities, like her youngest son who has Dyslexia. Being able to hear books read to him on an e-reader allows him to connect to the literary world. "I can't imagine any other way," she says, "that he'll make his way through Julius Caesar and the like."

For those of us who remember many a time thinking, "I told myself to put it there so I wouldn't forget where it was – but where is ‘there'?" – or for those of us with scattered minds, the days of misplaced books are over. Comments one satisfied e-reader consumer  Rivki Locker, a long-time teacher and curriculum writer. "I don't have to go searching all over the house for where I might have left my book, newspaper, or magazine." That is quite the incentive.

As an observant Jew, depending on an e-book can present some unforeseen complications. Reading becomes unavailable every Shabbat, the day books are relied upon most heavily for a leisurely way to pass the time.

Beyond this practical limitation, there is something about a digital book that just doesn't feel authentic. Many avid readers share similar sentiments about what makes the e-reader difficult to accept. In a recent online survey among the Stern student body, one published writer who wished to remain anonymous, nostalgically admits, "I'm one of those readers who appreciate the intimacy of a paperback book… The typeface and layout of e-books have a generic feel."

While many of these arguments might be disregarded as merely emotional, the argument stands to reason: isn't that precisely how a reader views a book in his or her hand? Not simply as a means of conveying bare facts, but as a way of opening the door to a new world. This is not just in the case of fantasy – books with flying cars and superheroes. Autobiographies, memoirs – a reader closes his or her own eyes to peer, for an fleeting moment, through the eyes of another. 

Any writer, one might have thought, agrees that a real book's intimacy should not, even cannot, be sacrificed for the sake of convenience or instant gratification. Imagine my bewilderment, then, upon discovering that some authors now choose to have their books published exclusivelyonline. One such author who made this decision: Stephen King, master of science fiction and horror.

When asked about his decision, King explained the importance of promoting a device like the Kindle. "I'm not sure that it won't [replace books]," he said, "[But] the book is not the important part. The book is the delivery system. The important thing is the story and talent." He admits, however, that even his beloved e-reader has some deficiencies with which the conventional book is not afflicted. He elaborates, "If you drop a book in the toilet, you can fish it out and dry it off and read it. If you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you're done." Yes, folks, it's true – the dangers of light bathroom reading with your Kindle are impossible to deny.

And there are other disadvantages to an e-reader, most a little less obscure.  Although some may prefer to have all their books accessible in a central location, this short-sightedness allows the risk of losing every book "owned" in a single slip of irresponsibility. As with a computer screen, some models also strain eyesight (more than reading under the covers with a flashlight ever did while growing up). There has always been a push to limit screen-time, but the e-reader increases that time exponentially.

While the e-reader does attempt to replicate the benefits of hands-on interaction with a printed book – it allows highlighting and note-taking and even doggie-ears – it falls short. These "apps" don't seem to measure up to a real highlighter, pencil, and margins. Also, according to one avid e-reader user, the navigation of some titles can be "less than convenient."

A virtual library has even been created, although selection is still limited, for e-readers to "borrow" and "return." Despite the arguments for convenience, this removes an integral part of the library experience. I still own my first library card, despite its expiration dated back to some time in the 90s. That card represents the very first time I signed something as my own. I remember the librarian, a hunched, wrinkly old woman who shuffled behind the counter and checked out my first heaping pile of books with a softened smile. Do we really want to remove the human contact associated with such a fundamental milestone? Diana Buss, a director of product management and a fervent book lover, points out that near-future generations "won't remember their first or favorite books by the way the book looked or smelled. [They won't] establish the same strong connections with literature." One has to wonder how far we, in the present, are willing to take our virtual era.

But there is something to be said, I'll admit, for the convenience of having a plethora of reading material anytime, anywhere. I take into account the expanded accessibility, and I – grudgingly – tip my proverbial hat to the Kindle. I won't (at least not outwardly) scorn its uses or users. What the e-reader needs, as with any invention, is to be used in moderation. Embrace the new while not disregarding the old; realize that the Kindle stands upon the shoulders of a centuries old printed legacy. For those of you who doown a Kindle, continue to reap the benefits.

Just keep it far away from your toilet.

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