So, Pocketnow is a technology website, right?
“Always start your posts with a rhetorical question,” says the Internet Manual of Poor Style. We’re off to a good start.
There are some downsides to running sites like ours, those that cater to a specific niche. One of those is that usually, readers don’t get much opportunity to get to know we writers personally, because everyone’s too busy trying to figure out how many GeeBees and WeeFees are under the hood of the latest, fantastically-named mobile device. There’s not a lot of time for much socialization. So unless you follow me on Twitter (which you should do), or listen to our podcast (ditto), you’d have no way of knowing that I’m a pretty sentimental guy.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m stoically unaffected by most “tearjerking” dramatic films, and I have absolutely no use for the baby pictures people post on Facebook (I mean, congratulations, obviously, but … you know). At the same time, show me something like the decommissioning of the space shuttle, the disemboweling of a promising operating system, or -curiously- the mawkish Topher Grace/Dennis Quaid film In Good Company, and I will bawl all over the floor.
And that weird sentimentality only grows when it’s paired with nostalgia. Which explains why you’ll probably see me write more webOS coverage as long as the bosses let me, and also why I often fondly recall my days as a Nextel salesman in articles. I love talking about the past.
So you’d think I’d be like so many avid readers of today, who when asked about their stance on e-readers like the Kindle, dismiss them with an air of mild distaste. “They’re cool,” say these people, generally my traditionally technology-averse actor friends, “but I just prefer the feel of a real book.”
The argument in favor of the ancient medium always seems to go the same way: it traces its roots to a purely emotional place, a pit of nostalgia deeper than most. Advocates argue, sometimes fiercely, that the “feel” of a book is superior, that dog-earing page corners and folding back the cover and licking a finger to flip over a page all contribute to the overall experience. Oh, and let’s not forget the smell. From a new book’s untouched parchment and new-set glue to an aged tome’s musty-attic aroma, the smell seems to be a crucial component of the magical journey that is reading. Without these elements, these people say, the experience of reading a book is sterile and unsatisfying.
There goes another Star Trek: The Next Generation reference, another nostalgia-fueled homage to my past, courtesy of my sentimental heart. So you’d think, dear reader, that I’d be in the same boat as these people longing for the preservation of their beloved, beleaguered books of yore.
I am not. I have no damns to give about the aged medium of books. As far as I’m concerned, you can digitize every book from The Epic of Gilgamesh to whatever just rolled off the press this afternoon, then take all the old volumes and turn them back into trees. I say, give me e-books or give me illiteracy. Here’s why.
Real Books Are Inconvenient
To say this problem is unique to books is unfair: this is an issue I’ve had with every kind of print media, ever. I’m not an invalid either; I’m pretty good at, you know, holding stuff. But books, magazines, and newspapers seem specifically designed to make reading them a huge ordeal, especially if you’re doing it one-handed.
Think about the calisthenics involved in breaking in a new paperback. For our purposes, assume you’re a busy person and want to multi-task a bit. Say you want to eat some cereal while you’re reading your book, so you only have one free hand. Well, the “perfect-binding” glue that (apparently) smells so delicious conspires with those crisp new covers to make the thing always want to snap closed. That’s unless you break its back first, which not only makes you feel like a heartless bastard, but also creates the opposite problem: now the book always wants to stay open. Folding the cover behind itself so you can hold the thing in one hand is cumbersome at best, and you’re lucky to get a quarter of the way into the book before pages start separating from the spine.
Magazines make this a little easier on you, but introduce an entirely new problem in the form of a wax coating that makes pages unreadable in any kind of glare. Navigating a newspaper is its own particular form of masochistic frustration, and trying to enjoy a hardcover book presents its own particular breed of problems, chief among them …
Real Books Are Huge
Remember packing for long trips when you were in school? If you were saddled with homework or just wanted to bring along some reading for the airplane, you had to devote a sizable block of space inside your bag to books, those glued-up bundles of paper you wanted to carry around. That’s true for paperbacks, but think of those old-timey college textbooks the learners of the world used to have to tote around. You remember the ones; they cost between $80 and $300, were the size of microwave-oven doors, and weighed no less than 75lbs. apiece .
But seriously, anytime someone tells me they’d rather carry around three newly-released hardcover books in their bag than even think about buying a Kindle or using a tablet for e-reading, I give them a funny look. It’s similar to the look they give me when I tell them I don’t wax romantic about memories of collecting bookmarks. Sure, they get the last laugh when they’re reading a story on the plane during takeoff and landing and I’m not allowed to for some stupid reason, but at least I don’t have a hernia from lugging around my iPad, even though it can hold literally millions of books. Oh, and I won’t be flat broke, because …
eBooks Cost Less Than Real Books
Yeah, yeah, I know: this isn’t always true. Particularly if you’re shopping for used books or volumes the publishers are trying to clear. Also, while I’m making your counterpoints for you, it’s true that not all books are even available in electronic form. Okay? OKAY.
But those are exceptions. Especially in the world of new releases, pre-ordering a Kindle version of a book is easier on the wallet than doing do for a physical volume, even when “FREE Super Saver Shipping!” is taken into account. And that makes all the sense in the world, doesn’t it? There’s no manufacturing process, no trucks to fuel up to ferry these large heavy volumes of physical material from building to building to your door. It’s just … text. Data. It should be cheaper.
I’ve heard the argument made that this lack of essence, this absence of physical existence renders eBooks somehow less valuable. The trouble is, if that standpoint is valid, then anything you buy that lacks a physical presence is valueless. Like, you know, iTunes music tracks and smartphone apps.
But those things’ll probably never take off anyway, so just forget it.
eBooks Are The New “Real Book”
Okay look: we’re not there yet. I get that. Tablet display technology currently gives us the option of either a great book display that stinks at rendering other kinds of content (Kindle, Nook), or a high-resolution computer screen perfect for web content, but which is too bright and shiny to provide a comfortable book-reading experience (everything else). There’s also little niggling concerns like the aforementioned airplane-mode problem, and the always-annoying issue of battery life. A real book, after all, never needs recharging.
But make no mistake: eBooks are where we’re going, and fast. And just like ancient people probably railed against the changeover from scrolls and tablets (the old, stone kind) to books, the people of today will continue to resist literature’s march toward the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
My love of books, though, has always been driven by their content. I have no sentimental attachment to the medium by which that content is delivered. For me, e-books have already surpassed their analog forebears in utility and convenience, and I look forward, with eager excitement, to a paper-less future.
Even if it doesn’t smell as good.
Title image source: Emilysfilms