The Double-Edged Paper Cut of E-Books

          Asking a reader about e-books can be a risky business. The topic is almost as touchy as asking someone about sports or politics. Worse even, its like asking a sixteenth century Christian how many fingers one uses to cross himself. I have a writer friend who makes absolutely no bones about her disdain for ebooks. Another writer friend thinks they're great since that is where most folks are buying his books.

          I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I far prefer reading a tangible book (further, I prefer hardcover to paperback, but paperback to e-book) since to me reading is far more than an exercise for the brain. It's a physical thing, too. I like how different books feel, Vonnegut books are light as a feather, for example, but a John Irving novel is heavy. Older books have rough pages that have turned tan with age and flipping, but new books are fresh and slick. And each book has a different scent to it that can have the ability to evoke powerful, long forgotten memories in an instant and without warning. (I recently discovered while creating a test for my English grammar course, for example, that our textbook, Understanding English Grammar, smells exactly like sixth grade. Exactly.)

My name is Lev Butts, and I am a book sniffer.
All ebooks, whether Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Anne Sexton, or Kate Chopin, look, weigh, and smell exactly like the same ebook reader.

          However, this is not to say I hate e-books; I don't.  In fact, I love them, despite the fact that some have accused me of playing both sides in the literacy wars. Apparently, if I don't choose one format over the other and forever shun the less worthy, some consider me a kind of traitor to All That Is Good And Holy About Literacy. My preference for hard-copy books coupled with my love of e-books is not hypocritical. I prefer crème brûlée to chocolate cake, but I still love chocolate cake.

          So when I first thought about tryng the electronic book format, it seemed as though every bookstore from Barnes & Noble to Hastings to the local mom-and-pop indie store was pushing its own version of ebook reader, so I had plenty of platforms to choose from.

I'd like to talk to you about my new e-reader blue. It's awesome.

          Amazon had arguably the most popular platform: the Kindle available in several formats:

Ranging from their ever-popular Kindle Fire tablet (right)
to their slightly less useful "door-stop" model (left & center).

          Barnes & Noble also had their Nook e-reader and tablet:
Complete with handy side loop so it attaches easily to your keyring
(a dubious feature at best since the reader will not fit in your pocket).

          Even Sony got into the e-reader wars by fielding its own reader named, originally enough, the Sony Reader:

The 8-track cassette player of e-readers

          Hell, even Borders joined the fray by backing the Kobo Reader (perhaps the final coffin nail in Borders' business strategy):
The Betamax of e-readers

          Ultimately, I decided to go with Apple's iPad since it not only came with its own e-reader, iBooks, but it also allowed you to download other e-reader programs as well. Admittedly, the iPad cost about twice what a Kindle or a Nook cost, but since I was able to put the Kindle, Nook, and two other ebook readers as well as a couple of comic e-readers on it, I felt it was like getting six readers for the price of two. 

          For the most part, I have not regretted either decision: to try the ebook format or to buy the iPad.

          E-books have at least one distinct advantage over hard-copy books:They are tiny. I have literally hundreds of books on my iPad including all fifteen books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all eight books in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, as well as his The Shining and Doctor Sleep, all six parts of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy,  every single Star Wars novel up to last October, and every selection for my Ancient World Literature, American Literature, and fairy tales courses (about 25 to thirty books and essays). And I still have room to have the first season of Farscape loaded into my video ap and  three or four computer games.

          No matter what I want to read, it's there waiting for me. When I was in high school and college, I used to carry around a copy of Richard Monaco's Parsival in my satchel just in case I wanted to read it suddenly. Now I have all of Monaco's work (at least all that has been converted to electronic format), as well as Catch-22, All the King's Men, and nearly countless others with me. Just in case. It's like having a public library in my satchel:

Yay! Look at all my choices!
         However, e-books also have one distinct disadvantage over hardcopy books, too:

Holy fartballs! Look at all my choices.
          They are tiny. I have literally hundreds of books on my iPad including all fifteen books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all eight books in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, as well as his The Shining and Doctor Sleep, all six parts of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy,  every single Star Wars novel up to last October, and every selection for my Ancient World Literature, American Literature, and fairy tales courses (about 25 to thirty books and essays). And I still have room to have the first season of Farscape loaded into my video ap and  three or four computer games.

          Now I never know what to read because it's all there waiting for me. I have been known to read two or three hard-copy books at a time (usually something for school or work and a couple of novels). With hard-copies, you are limited by what you can carry conveniently. I couldn't read a Wheel of Time novel and The Brothers Karamazov while I was reading Gone With the Wind, for instance because I'm just not physically strong enough to carry those books everywhere. My reading practices were able to remain fairly focused because of this.

          Now, though, I'm like an ADHD kid in a popcorn factory.

Like this but with more popcorn.

       I am literally reading about fourteen books right now, and I had to stop myself from starting a fifteenth and sixteenth earlier when I came across a collection of Mary Hood stories in my iBooks library and a Neil Gaiman graphic novel in my kindle library while writing the paragraph discussing all the cool shit I have in my e-book libraries.

          A few months ago, Reb MacRath sent me a complimentary copy of his re-worked 1980's horror story The Suiting. It's in my Kindle library, and I've been reading it ever since he gave it to me. As you all know, I'm a big proponent of reviewing books when you're given free copies, and I fully intend to, but then I got Doctor Sleep for my birthday, and before I read that, I have to re-read The Shining, so I've been reading it, too, and before all of this I had started on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series since his estate had finally released the very last book last October (about twenty plus years after he started the series), so every now and then I sneak in a few pages of it.

          And so on and so forth, until it seems like I never really read anything, I just start a bunch of books, throw them into a battle royale of sorts, and see which ones emerge from the fray completely read.

          Reb, you will be glad to know that The Suiting is holding its own better than any of the other books. It's closest rival is The Shining, which is holding a firm second place. That your book is holding firm and besting Stephen King's arguably finest early novel, will hopefully serve as positive review for now until I can finally turn the last virtual page and write something more official.

The first rule of eBook Club is no one talks about eBook Club.


Bill Kirton said…
You've nailed it, Lev. I bet others feel exactly the same way about the tactile (and olfactory) pleasure of reading paper books but also about that strange phenomenon you identify of part-reading multiple books. I never did that before ebooks but now I find I almost always have several on the go at once, with the result that some of them get forgotten. I'm not sure whether I'm reading more or less than I used to.
Jan Needle said…
despite the fact i've got a lady's name, i can't multi task at all. i'd love to be able to read more than one book at once, but it ain't going to happen. i'm slow, too, but very very slow. julia jones, please accept this extension to my apology. i STILL haven't been able to read The Lion of Sole Bay, and it's driving me mad. if i ever get on that desert island, the bible and shakespeare will see me off, even if i've got a hundred years!
I used to feel like you, Lev, but I have to admit that over the past few years I've changed. My enthusiastic attachment to paper books tends to be reserved for the old and beautiful volumes I'm lucky enough to own as well as the handful of Folio society editions. I'll make a hypocritical exception for my OWN books of course! But I spent a week before Christmas struggling to read a new copy of an excellent non-fiction book and wrestling with the spiky, cumbersome hardback became so irritating that if I hadn't been so enthusiastic about the book, I would have given up on it. I love the scent of very old books, much as I love the scent of very old textiles, but new books just smell of paper to me. On the other hand, my new Kindle Paperwhite with its pink leather cover that wakes it up as I open it, is such a miracle of design (and even the packaging was mouth-wateringly beautiful) that I was sold on it as an artefact from the beginning. Mind you, I seem to be disproportionately fond of my Samsung Galaxy s4 phone as well!
Lydia Bennet said…
I'm with Catherine on this, I love my kindle, even though it's the oldest 'keyboard' wifi + 3G model. Someone gave me a copy of their paperback recently, a very good book, but I found it floppy and heavy and cumbersome, I've got so used to the kindle. I can't carry much weight on trains etc due to my disability - I've been known to tear a thick paperback in half for a journey - and now I can carry a huge choice of reading on trains, planes, and into waiting rooms.
glitter noir said…
Great post, Lev--and thanks for the wonderful tribute to The Suiting Redux. I'll look forward to the review. More and more, I suspect, when my new Fire arrives, I'll find myself in your reading predicament!
Scott Thompson said…
I don’t have an e-reader yet so I carry several books around in my car everywhere I go. I’m sure there’s a formula to figure up how much extra money I’ve spent on gas carrying the additional book weight around all these years. Whenever someone rides with me I have to spend five minutes carefully moving my books to the back seat. When I do read an eBook I do it on my smart phone or computer. It’s not a great experience on those devices, but it works well enough. I’ll always prefer a paper book but there will be a time someday when I’ll invest in a nice Kindle or other e-reader.
Lydia Bennet said…
I wouldn't use an ipad or kindle fire because I want a screen that's not backlit like a computer is. I look at those enough of the time as it is! I find the Kindle screen very restful to the eyes.
Dennis Hamley said…
I think this thread sums up the situation perfectly. Long before I'd even heard of AE, a bulky paperback dropped out of my weary hands onto the floor on a long-haul flight and I had to take my belt off and scrabble round to find it. As I straightened up I saw someone in the opposite aisle calmly reading a Kindle and I decided there and then that I wanted one. But printed books are still my first love. For me, half the thrill of putting books on Kindle is the dream of one day seeing them again in beautiful print editions with their shiny new covers. But I'm now, after so many years, re-reading Brian Aldis's Helliconia trilogy, a mighty work of genius, now Harper Collins are republishing all his work. And I could only be doing this as an ebook. My bulky three volume print edition to pieces long ago. But if I still had them, I couldn't have packed them in our luggage for NZ. And the Kindle ed won't disintegrate either.
Chris Longmuir said…
I am a real convert to ebooks, although I still like paper. However 90% of my reading is now electronic. But Lev, if you bought your ipad simply for reading and nothing else I'm afraid it's the wrong choice. You won't be able to read on it in direct sunlight. The Kindle Fire has the same problem of a reflective screen. It's only the ones you call the doorstop models that will allow you to read in sunlight. Oh, and you indicate that Sony was a late arrival, however it was on the market a year before Kindle in both the US and the UK.

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