6.27.2012

Going All Borg on Ebooks

I was wrong. I've become that which I said I never would.

There, I said it. I've put on my big girl panties (which, let's face it, isn't too difficult for someone of my size, but that's beside the point) and have decided it's time to fully own up to something I've known for the last year and a half.

When it comes to reading, I've gone full Nook. 

This probably comes as no shock to you. After all, I sell my own writing almost exclusively in electronic format. But it isn't that simple. If releasing in print were anywhere near as easy as it is to release digitally, I'd happily do so. My electronic library is namely a result of my desire to keep things simple. But since e-books have just recently outsold hardcovers for the first time in the U.S., I figure it's now just me staying ahead of the curve. Oh, and by the way, thanks for finally joining the party and putting a few extra bucks in my pocket at the same time. ;)

A few years ago, I swore to myself I would never give up my paper books. I argued with many early adopters about how foolish they were. How senseless it would be to purchase digital copies of books they already owned, especially at upwards of $12 a pop. Even now, I still have a deep attachment to my paper copies, and will probably never give them up despite my loathing of keeping unused things in boxes in garage for years upon years. But the attachment is also pragmatic. Ken and I spent years and lots of money amassing that collection of books, and it's silly to try to replace all of them with electronic copies. We'll likely keep them until they fall to dust in our hands. Maybe the kids will inherit some of them. Maybe they'll take them out of a sense of pity, knowing all the while that any book they want to read will be instantly downloaded to the device of their choice. Their kids will probably look at those books the way I look at quaint antique kitchen gadgets. "Oh what a precious food chopper thingie!" /reaches for Vita-Mix.

Just recently, I discovered I didn't have anything I felt like reading on my Nook, so I went out to the garage and dragged in an armful of paperbacks. Some of them were quite old. And they had that musty book smell that you can't help but love. But reading them just felt different. The contrast of the ink against the paper (particularly in older books), the font size, the bulk... all of these things were especially noticeable. And not always in a good way. The Nook weighs a few ounces. The physical book weighs a couple pounds. I was squinting more as I was reading the print book. I also wasn't reading as fast. While I was able to keep reading without much problem, I found myself pining for the feather-weight Nook, whose pages turn with the quick press of a button, who won't lose its place if I accidentally drop it, whose binding isn't falling apart in my hands as I turn the pages, whose font size can be instantly bumped up just a smidge for the comfort of my aging eyes.

Look, I get why we romantacize the printed page. As an author, I continue to do that. You can't greet lines of readers at a bookstore and sign the Kindle editions of your book. You can't send the book you just finished to a friend across the country with a note tucked inside telling them how much you thought she might like it. You can't lovingly run your fingers along their spines as they stand on your shelves, proclaiming themselves as portals at the ready to whisk you away from your mundane life. This is why I love books. REAL books. This is why I will mourn them as they continue to their slow but inexorable death into binary oblivion. Also, those real books represent a tangible investment. Unlike the iffy leasing of digital content, your paper books belong to you.

But I would be a liar, a fraud, a hypocrite of the lowest order if I said that I wasn't helping along the demise of a centuries-old trade, because I love my little lightweight, millimeters thin miracle of an e-reader that, at the touch of a button has thousands of books ready to be loaded onto it. And that those thousands of books can be carted anywhere in this world without adding pounds of bulk to my luggage, and still be as readable. I'm reminded of when I moved to Washington and crammed every book I could fit into my suitcases and carry-on. The rest of my collection had to be left behind like old soldiers, and they were eventually put into a yard sale. It was painful. I STILL miss those books.

There are definitely drawbacks to this kind of technology, just as there were when we started adopting phones over landlines, opting for email over snail mail. I tried to stand in the way of progress, like that lone figure in Tienanmen Square before the rolling tanks, but I guess my conviction wasn't quite strong enough to keep my feet planted. And I guess that's okay. I'm definitely not alone. The book industry is going through a lot of painful contractions as it learns to adjust to this brave new world. Eventually, readers and sellers will find an equilibrium again, and by the time I'm old enough to soak my teeth in a jar on my nightstand, this conflict will seem as age old as the one that happened when The Jazz Singer came out in 1926 and showed people that they could both watch a moving picture show AND hear sound.

Still, it's probably a good  idea to keep those print books if you still have them. A book is a book, after all. It's only when people stop reading altogether that we can say we're in some serious trouble. And if we really fall into the abyss, you might need all that paper to keep you warm.