Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stories: on paper or electronically?

I am drooling after a Kindle, a Nook, or whatever eReader. Me, of all people. I'm the person who absolutely loves books: the texture of the paper, the cover art, interesting binding. One reason I really like the Snicket series is that those books simply look amazing in hard cover. They even come with an Ex Libris.

When news of non-paper books first started to trickle in, I was alarmed. Would books go the way of newspapers? People don't subscribe to newspapers anymore like they used to, because you can get more up-to-date news online at your convenience. I'd hate it if books disappeared, as well.

This of course brings about the question: why do I hate that idea? Why is text in an electronic form somehow bad compared to being printed on a piece of paper? Books really should not be the thing itself; they are merely vessels for stories that people tell each other, whether fictional or nonfictional. The word is still in written form, even if it consists of bytes--it should not take away anyone's ability to read the story. It will not destroy literacy or make the next generation super dumb. The eInk used in these readers is amazing: it really looks like you are reading printed text. The experience is not at all like reading text from a computer screen.

From an environmental standpoint, wouldn't it be better not to print on paper? So far, there are not very many sustainable alternatives to paper pulp that is used for book pages: the unfortunate fact is that we destroy trees for reading purposes. Does not evoke quite as romantic an image as sitting down at the breakfast table with a glass of orange juice and the morning paper, now does it?

I'm also thinking of simpler benefits. I tend to read when I'm commuting, or traveling. I've even developed a system for selecting the Best Book to Take Aboard to optimize my traveling companion, which boils down to this: if it's a short book, the topic of it should make you think and pause so you'll spend more time with it, and thus you won't need to bring many books with you. If you opt for one big book, make sure it's not something that requires too much thinking, because the task of reading a huge book is anyway a bit daunting, and you don't want to be re-reading the first 30 pages over and over again, until you give up and just start watching the in-flight movie... (If you're going to say anything about me being a hypocrite for being concerned about trees and then flying... Yes, I'm aware of this.)

With an eReader, this whole dilemma of "I really want to bring LoTR with me but it won't fit in with my teaching material!" would be erased. I could have any damned book I wanted in there--multiple books, even! All in one, slim reader.

The authors would still get their money; so would the publishers, the editors and the designers. After all, they are producing a story and its accompanying art (typography included)--not the pulpy bits.

The downside to giving eReaders to all is that it would make libraries and bookstores obsolete. That would be a shame. Objectively I could say that bookstores are not any more needed than music stores when you can download music. But they are just such fun places to go to. I love browsing books. I've often bought a book that just somehow caught my eye on the shelf. Still, my selfishness should not be the reason to sustain bookstores.

I would regret the disappearance of libraries the most. I feel as if libraries are a true sign of democracy: anyone can go in there, get a library card, and borrow a book on any topic they are interested in. A poor person can learn mathematics on his or her own without needing to buy cable for Internet (or the computer, for that matter)--just go to the library. Heck, you don't even need a library card if you have the time to just go there, sit down, and read.

Libraries are also bastions of free speech: groups attempt to ban or sensor books that they think are inappropriate ("think of the children!" is the most common objection to, say, a children's book about two mommies), and libraries and their awesome librarians usually tell people to suck it. Even in Alaska.

I suppose if people preferred eReaders over books, library buildings would still exist: they would be the archive for a forgotten art form, printing. It would be fun to go in and touch books and leaf through pages. Also, I assume that they would still keep on hosting book club events, children's story times, and offering space for the community in the form of study areas and meeting rooms.

Maybe bookstores would transform the same way in a world without paper. They would be mostly used for the community to get together and read, or discuss reading. Maybe bookstores would work as hubs for downloading and buying your books onto your eReader. They would still host author events.

It's kind of sad that even such a simple thought as "I really want one of these eReaders!" makes me feel like a terrible human being. I suppose it's still good to think about these things. I pretty much have my mind set, though. I'll be getting an eReader at some point, but I doubt it will stop me from buying books also in printed form.

ETA: Forgot to mention one thing that is still making me a bit iffy about the eReaders: the biggest of them, and hence the ones with most flexibility in use and most titles, are created by gigantic booksellers. Kindle is Amazon's, and Nook is Barnes&Noble's. Which, as far as I know, means that when I buy books, I should be buying them from these places--I will not be able to support a local bookseller, and I would be at the whim of the pricing policies of these gigantic corporations. As soon as there is a good reader that can download library eBooks, and buy books from wherever the heck I want, I will definitely be on it. Right now, I'm being cautious about to whom I want to sell my book-loving soul.

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