For a few years, I was reading eBooks on a second generation Kindle that my brother gave me.
It didn’t have a light or any fancy features really. It was like reading on a calculator. But I rather enjoyed its usefulness. If I could think of a book — typically, it was something classic and in the public domain (i.e. free) — I could download it instantly and hop to it.
Then, I stepped on the Kindle and it broke. Luckily, I had the Kindle app on my phone, so when I was in transit or laying in bed at night, I could just whip it out and read at will. It was like having a Kindle without actually having one.
As a quick aside: The Wall Street Journal thinks that reading on the phone is a big story now — and you know how the media is really on top of things. But I would say the average person has been on to the whole reading on the phone phenomenon for some time now. I don’t know a ton of people with e-readers, but I know a lot of people with phones. I don’t know if they’re reading, but they’re doing something, because they never look up.
Anyway, back to the story. A few months ago — actually as a Hanukkah gift — my father gave me a Kindle Voyage, which might have been the first holiday gift I’ve actually requested since I was 15-years-old.
Ever since then, I’ve been downloading and reading more books than any human could possibly keep up with. And like most people who read, I start one, maybe switch in the middle, go to another, come back to the other one, and so on. It takes a lot to finish watching a 30-minute TV show these days; imagine finishing a 700-page book.
The thing is, I also have a lot of print books too. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a book away, so in my possession now there are books I read when I was all of 6 or 7 years old. I’m not looking at them every day, but they are there.
And there are also newer print books, too. I sometimes look for rare books on eBay, I buy used stuff on Amazon. I buy books off guys selling them in the street. And publishers send me shit to review (even though I rarely review anything).
It’s not like I subscribe to some philosophy — only buy this or that. I just buy the stuff without really thinking about it much. It’s not limited to books: I do the same thing with records, sheet music, postcards, magazines. I absorb a lot of shit, and it’s arguably just that — shit.
By and large, however, I think a lot of the conversation over print vs. digital is just a matter of preference. Because there are a lot of people like me, who don’t quite have a preference, per se. Strictly for convenience, one might desire to have certain things in eBook format, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t also have certain things as print books, too. Things are rarely that black and white.
And yet, lately, I’ve grown a little disillusioned with the uniformity of eBooks. I love the convenience. Love it. Love it. Love it. But there is some element of beauty, a prettiness, that comes from the design of a print book, that is missing in the eBook.
I know that in the grand scheme of things this is all very tertiary, and I’m obviously the last person on earth to point out something so clear, but small things like spacing and font selection/size, the margins and even the cover — heck, especially the cover — of a book, are part of what makes it, well… a book. If you remove those things, what do you really have?
There is also something underrated about things being physical. Modern times are trending towards a day when paper no longer exists — other than to maybe wipe your butt, although I suppose there will be an Uber-like on-demand app that summons someone to spray clean your ass for you soon — but I think there’s actually a lot to be said for things existing in their physical form.
When things are digital, they are easily indexed and searchable, but because they take up no physical space, a lot of times it’s hard to tell what exactly is even there. I, myself, tend to forget that I own certain things, partially because I just don’t see it in front of me.
However, when books are on a shelf — just like a stack of DVDs or records — they’re kind of unavoidable. You know they exist simply because they are staring you in the face. In that way, there is an aspect of engaging with things that are digital that is far more active, which is good, because it implies that you actually want to look at those things. But it’s bad because, well, it doesn’t leave quite as much chance for serendipitous discovery.
I know what you’re thinking — “But Amazon gives you recommendations.” Yes, that is true, and those recommendations are, in their own way, rather helpful. However, I’ve found that when it comes to things I already have — in other words, things I am not going to buy from Amazon — it’s easier to glance at a physical book shelf than look at a digital one.
I also don’t necessarily share any sort of sentimentality with the eBook, whereas again, there are physical books that I’ve owned since I was a kid, and they were new then, but not new now, and I can feel the age in the pages that the words were printed on.
This may mean nothing in a world where time and age may soon be a thing of the past, but right now, in this world, humans are not yet robots (well, unless they work at Amazon, according to the New York Times). Google, Facebook and Twitter haven’t replaced my memories and feelings yet. I still feel alive. And when I look at a printed page, there is something that leaps out at me. The words, in some odd way, feel a little more real.
A couple of weeks ago I was going through some of my mother’s old things. Documents. Photos. Paperwork. She died over a decade ago and some of this stuff has been sitting in my closet, occasionally looked at, but rarely investigated altogether that thoroughly.
In a folder, I found a resume that my mother typed up; the date was 1974.
On the page, which had faded a bit in the 40 years since it was printed, were little red markings she’d made. They were corrections. In order to make them, she needed to put a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter, then type the whole thing up again, making sure she got the spacing right, spelled everything correctly, formatted properly. It was a chore!
This wasn’t a book but it was a physical thing and had I not found it in this folder, with these markings and this faded ink, I’m not sure I would have really connected with it in any real way. Through touching the page, it was like she was really there.
And when I have a physical book, even though it has been mass-produced and there ideally thousands of copies floating around, I feel like the author is there with me, too. If it’s a used book, and time has passed, the people who have read that book, the hands it has passed through, they are all right there as well.
Can I say the same about eBooks? No, I definitely cannot. With eBooks, whether it’s the King James Bible or 50 Shades of Grey, it always feels like I’m reading the same exact thing. Jesus and Christian Grey —on a Kindle they’re not that much different.
Of course I know that, within certain limitations of course, I can customize fonts and spacing and sizes to my liking. I can make Jesus into, well… Jesus.
Still, when I get a book, the art, the design, the package, the whole thing — it indicates, it suggests, it reveals, what it is, without even having to open it up. And it feels real and it’s very hard to ignore.
With eBooks, well, it’s kinda all the same shit.