A paperback guy in an ebook world
Ever feel out of place? Like you’re wandering through the woods in what seemed like the obvious direction and suddenly you look around and you’re all alone. “Hey, where did everybody go?” you call out. Your voice echoes awkwardly back to you. Instead of the words you said, it comes back, “you’re alone, alone, alone, alone…”
That’s how I feel sometimes about the whole ebook phenomenon. It seems like everyone else is reading on their e-readers, their phones, their tablets, or even their smart watches!? While I’m just puttering along with my primitive pile of pathetic papyri. A living fossil. Antiquated. A relic. A temporal anomaly. Just a paperback guy in an ebook world.
Well actually it turns out that, despite my perceived loneliness on the paperback trail, I may not be as alone as I think. Turns out that print books are actually still more popular than ebooks, according to some recent studies. And ebook sales even took a pretty big hit recently. But these developments aside, things are not all sunshine and syllables in the print world.
While the average American did read 12 books in 2016, the mean was only 4. What does that mean? (oh, look, I made a pun). That means that some people read a lot of books while most read not so many. And a whole lot read none at all. So, while most people do share my preference for hard copy books, reading in general isn’t happening much in either format.
Pulp fiction on a whole new level
But statistics aside, the really sad thing is not just that people are reading less, it’s what they’re doing instead of reading. They’re turning to video games, movies, smart phones, and head phones. They’re tuning in their entertainment and tuning out those around them. The rise of ebooks is emblematic of a broader shift, one away from quiet rooms and mentally engaging forays into the imagination to consuming content as voraciously as possible.
Ebooks are like fast food restaurants, churning out whatever is easiest to digest as quickly as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, we have two e-readers in my family. And I love that the classics are free on most platforms. But the on-demand nature of ebooks (and technology in general) seems to be numbing many readers to the good and the true in literature. They think less deeply about what they read. They care less about what a book says about the world and more about the level of excitement they get from reading it.
To be sure, there are still pockets of readers dedicated to the classics and to good modern stories when they can be found, but for the most part, it’s all about page turning, pounding pulses, the genre fad of the moment. Literature in the 21st century is not so much about expanding our horizons as it is shrinking them into the most readily consumable format possible. Ebooks are like fast food restaurants, churning out whatever is easiest to digest as quickly as possible.
The convenience of ebooks actually works against them in some ways. Like any product in a free market, when you increase supply, you reduce demand. The market is now flooded with easily obtainable and readily consumable stories. Authors are giving away their novels just to get readers hooked. 99 cents is a common price point for something it took someone dozens, if not hundreds of hours to produce.
But which would you value more, one of the hundreds of books on your e-reader or that hardback copy of Brother’s Karamazov you’ve had on your shelf for years? Reading, for many, has become a cheap thrill in more ways than one.
Under cover readers
One of the other great paradigm shifts with e-readers has been the removal of a cover. When I’m reading a print book, you can see what I’m reading. The cover might even pique your interest and influence you to pick up a copy yourself without the two of us ever exchanging a word.
But with ebooks I have no idea what you’re reading. You could be reading the best thing ever written and I’ll never benefit unless I stop and ask you.
Conversely, you could be reading pure smut, something as black as sin, right there on the beach in front of me, and I would never know. Because your reading has become divorced from your surroundings. Reading electronically, more than ever before, is all about you. You have access to the worst the world has to offer and it’s only a click away.
They’re a breadcrumb trail of your intellectual development in a way that your e-reader never could be.
Books, the architecture of the mind
I wrote a post once about how books are the architecture of the mind. But they are literal architecture as well (yes, another pun). Books, when displayed in a personal library give a room a homey feel that says, “thoughts are welcome here.” Not only that, they become symbolic of who you are, giving visitors a window into some of your private musings. They’re a breadcrumb trail of your intellectual development in a way that your e-reader never could be.
No doubt for some book shelves are merely utilitarian, a place to store old things they’ve lost interest in or, worse still, never read at all. But if you’ve ever been in a room with books lovingly chosen and arranged by genre, theme, or subject, you know that you have been invited, not just to the physical space of someone’s home, but in no small measure, into their hearts and minds as well.
Can’t we just be friends?
As I said before, our family does own e-readers. I have read a handful of books on them. And the convenience is certainly a plus. The built in dictionaries and ability to rate and recommend are also great innovations. Most of the copies I’ve sold of my books have been ebook versions. Can’t I just embrace the future and get on without already?
Unfortunately, because of many of the reasons I’ve mentioned, I can’t bring myself to join the revolution. At the end of the day, there is just something soulless about ebooks. No, my friends, when all’s said and done, I guess I’m just a paperback guy in an ebook world.