the loneliness of the unshared e-book

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page.

New York Times contributor Verlyn Klinkenborg (who visited my place of work once and was overwhelmed by the “deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class” – and used it to write an interesting piece on young women’s hesitance to claim authority as writers) reflects on reading on an iPad. And he has exactly the same reservations about the experience as I do.

“All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly,” he writes. There is no design of the words on the page, no distinction among books. They all look alike, and every at every page you feel as if you’re in the same place in the text, somewhere in the middle. It’s impossible to get a sense of how old the book is, what makes the book visually distinctive, or where you are in the text. There’s  a profusion of editions of classics and translations, but because they’re all dressed in the same burlap duds, it’s hard to tell which is newer, which is more authoritative, which is more accurate. This seeming democracy of words has made every book wear the same drab, ill-fitting uniform.

But I am particularly pleased that he ends with this point that will have the greatest impact on our reading culture.

I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. [ed. note: many major publishers have insisted this feature be disabled for their books.] The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

photo courtesy of Jemsweb.


11 Responses to the loneliness of the unshared e-book

  1. Julie Campbell says:

    I so agree Barbara. I have a Kindle and I use it for convenience (it has turned into my all-purpose purse book). But given the choice, I always opt for a paper book. I want to be able to flip back and check out something I’ve already read. I want to smell the paper (my favorites are paperbacks that smell like new coloring books back in third grade). I want to be able to pass it on to a good home. I’m sure publishers look to the day when it’s all e-books but I can’t see that happening.

  2. Celita DeArmond says:

    Reading Cormac McCarthy in paper provides a much more visceral experience. And that’s important when reading works such as Blood Meridian. But non-fiction texts? The medium seems not to matter as much. That’s been my experience so far as an iPad owner. I like to curl and dogear and have the physical feel of paper while reading fiction. It does heighten the reading experience. As a musician, I would make the parallel between LP recordings v digital music: there is an overall loss in sound quality in the digital version.

    • Jackson says:

      I disagree. As an old ’60s person, I can’t imagine reading things like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or some of Thomas Wolfe’s books, or In Cold Blood (which I just reread two weeks ago) on a Kindle or any other electronic device.

  3. Larry Schwartz says:

    I read this article once over lightly, and need to go back again. I am sure that the twopointopians will make fun of him for his emphasis on the tactile.

  4. I once for my day job had to review a book called The Myth of Paperless Office and the authors’ premise was basically that paper has qualities (they called them affordances) that meant that paper would never go away because it is suited to some purposes. I have wondered since if the studies they did would have different results with today’s 15-year olds.

    To play devil’s advocate though I suspect it won’t be too long before someone comes up with a model that will allow passing on of e-books – we do it now in my day job with licenses copies of text books – when a person has finished with a book the license moves to a new user – I can’t see why you can’t do that with e-books when publishers wake up to themselves.

  5. Barbara says:

    I loved that book, Bernadette – fascinating study. It would be interesting to repeat. I wonder if our acceptance of computers as part of the social landscape has changed, too, particularly with hand-held devices? One of the “workplaces” they observed was that of police officers taking a report from frightened, upset crime victims. Breaking eye contact to find the right field to fill in on a computer form was simply unworkable (and trying to translate plain English into bureaucratize probably broke the mood, too). But using a tablet might be a different matter.

    Celita, I get what you are saying. It’s interesting, though, that so far with every reading device (from the old Rocketbooks on up), the texts that are most accepted by readers are entertainment reading, the kinds of books you can become “lost” in, and usually the adopters are older people who like the option of enlarging fonts. So far, in small-scale studies I’ve seen, college students have not been rousingly in favor of e-textbooks. They want to own (not license) them, they want to read off-screen, and they want to mark texts up, which is so far much easier with pen and highlighter on paper than on the computer. They also get enormously frustrated when they can’t print or copy/paste text. That seems frustratingly counter-intuitive to them.

  6. joan says:

    I’m a librarian and voracious reader who hardly ever buys books. I use the library, of course. Actually, two libraries: my own work library and the local public library. And this is the big thing for me with ebook readers. I’m too cheap to buy books.

  7. I have tried to loan my Kindle to my family to read books. It isn’t easy. For one, I often need it back! For another, they don’t feel as comfortable with it. The Kindle isn’t a book, but something more like a person’s desk: not easy to transfer.

  8. Gerard says:

    I forgot all about that NYT article.

  9. kathy d. says:

    Simply, no book polemics today, but that photo is adorable as is the baby. But I am taken by his intent expression looking at the book being read to him…one can start their book loving early.
    This is how some friends ended up having their young children bring them armfuls of books every day to read at 6 a.m., before they’d have their coffee. The kids just loved those books and being read to. Today, at 26 and 21, they read their own books, but love to read.

  10. kathy d. says:

    Errata: Meant to say my friends’ children are 16 and 21 and love to read, not yet mysteries, but lots of fiction and history.

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