Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why I Don't Read E-Books (or, An Ode to Print Books)

For a few months now, my mother has been asking me about e-readers, what kind I would recommend (the Sony or the nook, but I have a personal one-man boycott against Amazon especially with e-books, so I’m biased), what they’re like to use, and more specifically, what brand I would want if she were to get me one. Every time she asked I would tell her the same thing.

“Honestly mom, I don’t really want or need an e-reader. I wouldn’t use it so please don’t waste your money on buying me one. I could use some bookshelves though.”

Well she bought me one anyway (yes I said thank you) and many of the friends that I’ve told seem shocked that I’m not more excited about my new “toy.” They don’t understand why I’m not buying thousands of e-books and taking it everywhere with me. Many of them have told me “just wait…you’ll get used to it and then you’ll be addicted.” But I know I won’t and here’s why.

I love books. I don’t just mean reading. I love physical books. So much of the pleasure I derive from the reading process comes from the actual physical book. Maybe that’s a comfort thing from growing up as a reader, but so be it. Let’s start with the purchase. While it’s nice to be able to order a book offline and have it shipped, there’s no substitute in my mind for going to the brick-and-mortar bookstore and browsing the shelves. Some people find it soothing to shop for clothes, I shop for books. I love scanning the shelves, pulling out books that look interesting, reading the copy, judging books by their covers, and ultimately walking away with at least a few books to buy. If I go looking for a specific book and it’s not there, I will almost always say no when the clerk asks if I’d like to special order it. It gives me an excuse to go to the next closest bookstore and repeat the whole process again.

E-books, being digital, cannot be bought at a bookstore. All you have to do is go online or on your reader and click a few buttons. It sounds easy but to me, that’s boring. And unlike my fashion-loving friends, who can order something and then get to try it on when it arrives, I don’t even get something solid I can hold in my hands.

Once I’ve bought my books, I love to look at the covers and read the copy again. Covers are very important to me. There have been times when a cover will make or break a book for me. In fact, you could probably hand me my favorite book and if it had a horrible cover, I would probably not enjoy the reading experience as much as I would if it had a cover I loved. I could still enjoy the book, but part of the experience would be ruined for me. And unfortunately e-books don’t really come with covers. Even the companies that include their covers in the e-book can’t duplicate some of their most amazing covers on the grayscale e-readers. I downloaded a free sample of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (which, you’ll recall, was my first acquisition) just to see what it would look like as an e-book, and while the cover was included, even that cover, which was incredibly beautiful, simple and only two-colors (black and gray-blue) just didn’t do it for me on the e-reader.

Then we get to the reading itself. When I read a book, I love feeling the book in my hands; the feel of the cover whether it’s matte or gloss, the bumpiness of embossing, the texture of the interior paper, the weight of the book in my hands. I love to feel the thickness (or thinness) of the book and to see and feel, as I’m reading, how far I’ve gone and how far I still have to go. And I love the smell of the paper and ink and the differences between the smell of a new book and the smell of an older book that’s started to yellow with age. When I’m reading an e-book, I’m always feeling the same weight under my hands, the same texture (my e-reader case). I’m always on the same page, in a sense, because I haven’t been able to experience the sensation of flipping (a rite of passage I enjoy). And of course, there’s no smell, unless you accidentally spill coffee on your reader’s case (not advised).

To be clear, this is not an anti-e-books blog post. Hell, if it weren’t for e-books, I wouldn’t be making a living right now. And I know a lot of people enjoy their e-readers, either because they are tired of their bookshelves exploding or because they enjoy the anonymity while reading an embarrassing book on the subway, or just because they can carry around one e-reader filled with books instead of carrying one heavy hardcover or taking multiple books on vacation in case the first one turns out to be a snooze. I am just not one of those people. As you can see, the act of reading a book is a very sensual (not to be confused with sexual---I don’t love books that much) experience for me. It’s an experience that is very important to me and has been deeply ingrained since childhood when I first read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with its green cover and full-color illustrations.

So for those who wondered why I wasn’t ignoring the world while downloading the entire contents of my to-be-read list, now you know. And for those who are wondering, yes I probably will use my e-reader occasionally. Once I am back in editorial (yes I’m still holding out) I’ll use my reader to review manuscripts. And in the meantime, I promised my mother I’d buy at least one e-book, though it may take me a while to get to it (my TBR pile takes up most of my office floor at the moment, and it continues to grow), and I have been using it to play Sudoku. Ultimately, though, I’m still wishing I had some new bookshelves. I’d really like to see my office floor again.