Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Ereader

So yesterday I finally broke down and bought an ereader.

This might not seem the act of a particularly late adopter until you factor in the fact that it has been my job for the past year to sell said E Readers (I’m not saying which but they ain’t Kobo’s)


I’ve spent most of that year feeling about as welcome as Satan in a southern Baptist church. To say that some customers have been hostile to the idea of an ereader would be understating things. Imagine Dracula confronted with a mirrored crucifix and you’re halfway there.

And I get it. I do. I like physical media (I can’t ever imagine being comfortable with a film library that was solely digital) I’m a book person and thus understand book people. And the type of people who tend to be book people tend to be, shall we say protective of the things they have that bring them pleasure. And despite all the platitudes of ereaders being a supplement not a replacement there’s no way to deny that ebooks have their physical counterparts dead in their sights. I mean God now that my Itunes account offers me Gigs and gigs of unscratchable songs I all but use my CD’s for target practice.

But that wasn’t why I didn’t buy the ereader. With my employee discount Ebooks just weren’t much less expensive then regular books and without that added incentive there just seemed very little reason to make the switch. But faced with the prospect of moving across the country and coming to the grim realization that if I do I will be forced to leave about 90% of my library behind I decided to bite the bullet and pick one up.

It is nice. Particularly the price point, which makes picking up new books not written by mega bestselling authors affordable. It’s a lot to ask someone to spend 25-30 bucks on an untested author, but much easier to have that same consumer shell out ten or twelve bucks. It levels the playing field and democratizes things a bit. Sure James Patterson still has name recognition over Johnny Wouldbegreat but he is no longer 40% cheaper as well.

Simply put it allows access to books that you didn’t have before. Take Love Wins, as interested as I was in giving it a read after reading about it on Slacktivist, paying twenty five bucks for a religious tract isn’t really going to be in the cards. Or for the more secular among you take Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, which despite loving I couldn’t give an unqualified recommendation to simply because there wasn’t enough book for 27 dollars. At ten dollars you can bet that that recommendation goes from “qualified” to “Hell yes” fairly quickly. The price drop on Magazines is even more dramatic. I just bought Spin for the first time in seven years because at fifty cents an issue why not? I cheerfully subscribed to Newsweek for 2.99 a month, or in other words about half of the cost of a single issue in the real world.

Older books are even better. I just bought the majority of Robert E. Howards work for 99 cents. Out of print and rare are things of a past. I can remember mournfully reading Danse Macabre and wondering how I'd find half of the books being talked about. No more. If you want it it's there.

Of course the advantages of time, money and space hardly have to be pointed out. But there are some nice advantages that don’t spring immediately to mind. Take anonymity. Want to read Diablo Cody’s memoir without getting nasty looks on the bus? Really want to check out the latest one Dean Koontz just put out, or Dave Mustaine’s Autobiography without facing your coworker’s scorn? Go for it! For all anyone knows looking by looking at you, you’re reading War and Peace. You read quicker on the ereader. And I know this’ll sound weird but certain genre’s read easier. Normally it takes a lot of momentum through the first third of a fantasy or sci fi novel, yet on the ereader I slip in as easy as anything.

Yet there are limits. A strange ineffable sense of weightlessness for one. It’d be impossible for me to imagine reading a volume of Pynchon, Cormac McCarthey, or even Stephen King on the device. It is a platform for bestsellers, decent paperbacks, spurious political agit prop, dubious tell alls, minor works to scratch the completest itch, investigating possible flash in the pan would be literary sensations and second chances for authors who have let the reader down.

There’s also a strange dearth of comic related material available (aside from a truly staggering amount of Yaoi). It has nothing to do with the hardware as I loaded some files from my computer on it and it looks practically ideal. I can understand the big three wanting to cut their own deals but where are the smaller publishers on this? Why can’t I read say Julia Wertz’s Drinking At The Movies or Jeffery Brown’s Little Things on the nook? As for Manga if the publisher’s are worried about splitting the market on their newer titles why not put out some catalogue ones? Lord knows I’d be happy to plop down a few bucks for a few non clutter inducing volumes of Flames Of Recca or Ramna ½.

But there’s still much more to like about the ereader then not. First of all the fact that it exists still kind of blows my mind. I mean think about it. This is a device that can synthize the entirety of the western canon, from the freaking air and thanks to public domain laws it will do it for free. That’s a miracle. To quote Tycho Braehe “HG Welles would shit himself.”

As I’ve written before I have developed an addiction to GK Chesterton. As with any junkie the chase for the fix has led to some odd places. I ended up buying a few rare editions, which I rarely do, of some minor works for a reasonablish price.

These books were printed at a small press in London in 1930. All three volumes are marked with the inscription “To Tom: With Joan’s Love September 9th 1938.” They survived the blitz, somehow crossed the Atlantic and somehow wound their way down the decades to find me.

I’m their custodian for now. But one day poverty, death, or the simple desire to pass what lies in them on will pass that mantle on to someone else. Down the stream of time to another protector.

And that is what the ereader lacks and what it will never have. It lacks that communion that exists between readers. The continuum of experience. Readers are arks for what they value. What every reader knows is that reading is an active, not a passive act. The ereader makes reading a rather lonely thing. It eliminates the book’s poetry.

Thanks to the wonders of public domain and a bit of patience I now own more or less everything Chesterton ever wrote.

But rest assured if I ever get a chance to own the reflected volumes I’ve collected on the Ereader in their real form, I will not even hesitate.


Jonathon Howard said...

My wife got me the kindle this month as an early birthday present. I love books too and was skeptical of what an ereader would do for me, seeing as I love the smell of new books, old books, and libraries. I like the fact that a book can go anywhere and withstand just about anything. I love the old pre-owned books I possess with their enigmatic epigrams, highlights/underline, and dog eared pages.

Despite all that I do love the Kindle. For a lot of the same reasons you mentioned. I find myself more willing to buy books by unknown and untested authors. I enjoy it because I can carry around my copy of Josephus without hurting my back.

In some ways I see it as a cheating device. I can give up all the stuff accumulating in my home, those things that take up space and mental real-estate without contributing anything (books that will never be re-read, books that I bought but should have borrowed, etc) without actually having to give them up.

Chris David Richards said...

I've yet to try an ereader, but I just can't give up the paper. I like the feel of books, as a physical thing to have. I think I might be one of those book people you mentioned.

le0pard13 said...

This is a wonderful piece expressing your thoughts and experiences with the eReader, Bryce. You stated the devices (in their current form) pluses and minuses quite well. I think they will have to leverage more of the social networking channels, along with manufacturers being less greedy (I'm not holding my breath on that one) by loosening how proprietary each of their appliances remain, to get close to the communion you describe which books engender. Now, if we can figure a way of an author signing/personalizing their novel for the buyer...

Thanks, my friend.

StuartOhQueue said...

Philosophically speaking, I'm opposed to digital reading devices but, when one of my textbooks was drastically less as an ebook on amazon, I broke down and got kindle for my Android.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Jonathon Howard: Very true. As someone with a definite collector impulse it's nice to have something that won't contribute to me being crushed to death in an earthquake.

@ Chris: On the whole I completely agree with you. But as I said at the moment it's awfully convenient.

@ Le0pard: As always sir thank you for your kind words of encouragement.

@ Stuart: That's another advantage. Though it's moving kind of slowly.