A paperback guy in an ebook world - djedwardson.com
paperback guy ebook world

A paperback guy in an ebook world

paperback guy 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.

Digital doldrums

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.

classic book quote by italo calvino

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.

empty bookshelf kindle e-reader

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.

house without books quote

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.

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Comments (4)

  1. I love this post — so many good points! Interesting research too.

    I do agree that I value the books I pick up at library sales or buy physically from author friends more than I do the collection of pixels in my Kindle App library… It’s convenient to be able to get free, or basically free, ebooks, especially by authors I know and love or am curious about, but they do often wait awhile to get read… I’ve been reading a lot more ebooks lately than I used to, simply because I’ve (accidentally?) become something of a book-review blogger, and so I get ARCs and stuff. But I do find myself increasingly missing reading more physical books, and I HAVE proved just now that a collection of ebook short stories I had on my computer for years and haven’t read, I read the very next day when I bought the physical version, so… Yes.

    I’m torn because of conveniences, but it’s not even SO convenient for me since I can only read ebooks on my laptop, and I’d much rather be writing or emailing friends or blogging when I’m on that. XD I can’t imagine a life WITHOUT physical books and I figure there are enough of us out there that it won’t come to that.

    I agree about entering someone’s physical book library (even my own!) and I’ve spent many happy hours organizing and reorganizing my shelves.

    When it comes right down to it, it all boils down to that picture you have of the empty bookshelves and the single ereader on it. When I saw that picture, I can’t explain it but I just felt… sad… the picture looks so wrong, and empty, and forlorn, and soulless and abandoned. The idea of looking at a bookshelf and it doesn’t have any books, just fills me with devastation. So yeah. That’s it in a nutshell.

    Great post, thank you! I always enjoy your thoughtful and well-written musings! <3

  2. DJ Edwardson says:

    Yes, that’s such a sad picture isn’t it? Poor, lonely, little e-reader just doesn’t cut it.

    With free ebooks I find that, like you, I generally don’t read them. I got around 10K downloads for Into the Vast when it was free and only 35 people bothered to leave a review. Plus, I think as authors we may be selling ourselves short by giving away our books. Yes, it gets your name out there, but it’s a flash in the pan, here today, gone tomorrow. A physical book is more of an investment and you’re less likely to ignore it and more likely to appreciate it.

    But, yeah, the convenience. Especially if you’re a book blogger, that’s kind of a special case where e-readers actually do make sense. Because you do actually need to consume quite a bit to pull that off. And from a practical standpoint you might not actually have enough space on your shelves if all those were hard copies!

    Still, nothing can quite replace those dear cherished tomes on our shelves, can they? They’ll always be the books we truly love. In fact, on those rare occasions when I do read an ebook, if I end up loving it I’ll usually plan on buying a physical copy at some point.

    Thanks for your great comment!

  3. Matthew Cyr says:

    “In fact, on those rare occasions when I do read an ebook, if I end up loving it I’ll usually plan on buying a physical copy at some point.”

    Agreed. It’s always more satisfying to read a physical book than an e-book…even more so if it’s a beautiful leather-bound edition. You can smell it when you take it off the shelf, you get a rich tactile experience in addition to the book’s contents, that says to your subconscious mind “you’ve got something really special here, savor it.”

    That said, I have halfway embraced the Kindle because anything noteworthy that was written over a hundred years ago is in the public domain and therefor available FOR FREE. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Austen, Shakespeare, Alcott, Dumas, McDonald, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Virgil, Homer, free-free-free-free-FREE! It is staggering when you stop and think about it, the enormous well-stocked library of classics that is available gratis because volunteers have put them in digital format and uploaded them to Amazon. There may be a river of sewage and smut “just a click away” as you said, but there are also found there many of the great voices of Mankind’s conversation with itself over the millennia. There are great works from history that I’ve read because I had an e-reader. I don’t know that I would have taken the time to collect some of these from a library – but the ease of that click-and-download works in the positive direction too. If it’s 11 at night and something moves me, as it did not so long ago, to read Les Miserables for the first time…well, by the next time I can get to the library, the motivation may have evaporated. But with my ipad I can be reading Les Mis by 11:01pm, and once started, I will likely finish.

    And as you said in the quote above – when I find a real gem, I know it’s worth getting the hard copy to put on my shelf – maybe even in the beautiful leather if it’s warranted (and my wallet can stand the hit). Because in the end, I agree, a house should be a place where humans live, surrounded by books.

    • DJ Edwardson says:

      Matthew thanks for commenting! So glad to see you back here.

      I completely agree with you on the classics. It is the one thing ebooks have that physical books can’t really touch. Access to the world’s literary treasures. Probably 90% of what I’ve read on our e-reader is of that vein. What an embarrassment of riches, all given away for not a song nor even a note, but for nothing.

      That said, I’ve not gotten around to purchasing the physical versions of most of these and that is a shame. Because those books truly belong on shelves. Still, I am better for at least having read them and, as you also said, one’s wallet can only stretch so far.

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