Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No, E-books Can't Burn, But...

Tim Parks said some things in his recent New York Review of Books article, "E-books Can't Burn," that I find almost nonsensical.  I understand what he is trying to say, and I can see the logic he used to arrive at his conclusions, but his points are so near the opposite of my gut feelings about physical books and e-books that I find them ludicrous.

This is a section of that article (highlights are mine) that particularly makes me shake my head in disbelief:
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
 Let's start with the last sentence.  This is a medium for grown-ups?  Hardly.  It is a medium with particular appeal to the gadget-minded children of today who are living in a world in which they have never known a day of not plugging in to some electronic game, music gadget, video player, or smart phone.  To them, e-book readers are the way of the world, another way to impress their friends (if friends are still impressed by someone reading a book, that is) that they are living "on the edge" of modern technology.  Most adults are perfectly fine with a physical book, thank you, and find, once the new wears off, that e-book readers are largely to be dragged from a drawer and loaded prior to the beginning of another business trip or vacation.

As for e-books "discouraging anything but our focus on where we are," I submit that longtime readers find it more difficult to focus on the written words electronically than by reading those same words in a physical book.  Distractions seem to more easily tear one's eyes from electronic ink than from the written page.  It has been my experience, and that of several I have asked about it, that one's retention rate when reading an e-book falls somewhere between what one retains in listening to an audio book and reading a physical copy.  Perhaps that is different for less experienced readers.

Experienced readers understand the value that different fonts and white spacing have in setting a mood and a pace for the reader.  They understand that reading a classic novel in an early printing and binding can be a very important part of the reading experience.  They understand that reading an e-book is a relatively sterile experience and that reading one e-book is much like reading any other e-book.

No, "e-books can't burn," but they can disappear into the electronic void at any moment or become inaccessible when an e-book reader crashes and burns.  Publishers and sellers (as Amazon has done) can yank them back to make changes and edits any time they want to do so.  Or, most troubling considering their ever-rising prices, e-book formats can (and will) change, pretty much making entire e-libraries obsolete when they do.

Do read Mr. Parks's article.  I expect that many of you will agree with him and that others will find much of what he says to be as ludicrous as I find it to be.  Let me know what you think.


  1. Since buying my Nook, I've found that I buy many more new books than I used to (since e-books can only be bought new), and I've bought many more e-books than I ever expected to. Considering the cost of my e-reader, I'm happy that it hasn't gone the way of my food processor and been abandoned to collect dust after a short period of intense use.

    However, I'm definitely not an e-only reader. I'm currently partway through 2 print books and 1 e-book. There are benefits and drawbacks to both print and e-books. My sister recently had a house fire that destroyed or damaged many of her family's things, so I get the whole "e-books don't burn" argument, but that doesn't mean they're safe. File formats get abandoned. Files can become corrupt. Even if you back your files up, it's easy to let regular backing up slide, or to forget to back up a file. And people who buy DRM-protected books have even more to worry about.

    As far as the reading experience goes, I prefer print books. I'm a "favorite bits" rereader. I don't often reread whole books, but I might reread my favorite chapters or scenes many times. I can sometimes find those favorite parts based on the places where the book opens most easily. With some of my series authors, my favorite bits tend to happen in approximately the same page range (yes, the author is using a formula, and yes, that formula works on me). When it comes to non-fiction books, I can sometimes remember what's on a page by picturing any markings or drawings on the page and working from there - for me, they're a little like the book version of landmarks. I lose all of those things with e-books. I love the portability of e-books, and I love that I can go on shopping sprees without the horrible after period, when I realize I don't really have room for all the books I just bought. However, I do feel I engage more with print books.

  2. My e-reader has its place but it is only a place.

    Printed books have my love. And I don't think rescuing my e-reader from a fire would give any consolation at all if my print books were burned.

    Books are so much much more than just words - or money.

  3. I'm intrigued by your reaction, Sam. I'm going to have to read the article. It strikes me that while Parks argues for the fire-proof nature of the e-book as pure text, (which is not true as there is still a physical component to the reader) one could equally argue that the lack lessens the potency of the physical object as representative of its ideas. Now books may not be burned not because one cannot burn the machine, but because they are not as important symbolically for their ideas because one book is indistinct in its physical reality from another.

  4. I love my 'real' books, and despite culling them a few years ago I have thousands of them.

    However I moved to Beijing two years ago and though I bring books with me whenever I come back from the west, weight restrictions mean I can never bring enough for my voracious reading appetite. English language books are expensive here in China, and the choice is limited so for me ebooks - on my Kindle - have proved a god-send.

    Never-the-less, just like A Library Girl I often have a real book on the go as well as an e-book.

    Despite what you said about e-readers being technology for gadget-minded youngsters, I have found that senior readers are adopting e-books (I'm no spring chicken myself)they love the facility to adjust the text size for aging eyesight. This puts many more books within the range of the older reader because they are not dependent on the 'large-print' book format which has a much more limited selection.
    When my aunt was in hospital a Kindle was ideal for her - light, adjustable, and with a whole smorgasbord of books to suit her every mood.

    The one area where the e-book fails is in illustration - the pictures (if any) are cr*p, and that can be very irritating. No doubt some geek is working on the problem even as we speak.

    So from being a reluctant e-reader I have become a convert, there is a place for them alongside 'real' books, it depends on circumstance.

  5. Library Girl, I think you're using your e-reader more than me but in a very similar manner. I keep amassing more and more "free" titles that I have every intention of reading someday, but it hasn't happened yet. Somehow, "free" does not fill me with any sense of urgency to read the book rather than waste my investment. That's silly, I know.

    I find what you say about reading a physical book to be very apt...and I have experienced much the same.

  6. Debbie, my e-book reader would be one of the last things I would try to rescue in a fire. I would empty my bookshelves of as many "key" books as possible, though without any hesitation.

    Yes, "books are more than words." They are an experience that cannot be electronically duplicated.

  7. Those are great points, Ted.

    Too, e-books can't be burned is, I think, aimed at those who burned books in the past as a means of censorship. E-books are actually much easier to destroy in greater volume than are physical books...just push a button or two from the right software and wipe out thousands of e-copies immediately. Or edit out the key points that disturb your politics, etc. Way too easy to do on a massive scale.

  8. Herschelian, I agree that e-books have their place and uses. What bothers me is the willingness of so many who should know better to sit back and watch the publishing infrastructure and marketing system to be destroyed because they prefer e-books. E-books offer a lot, and large print and the ability to carry huge libraries in your briefcase are two of the most important ones.

    I'm not meaning to argue that the choice of an e-book reader is mutually exclusive to reading physical books. But anything that will limit my access to new hardcover book choices is obscene to me. And I do believe that if e-books become dominant that their prices will go up to the point that they match or exceed the prices of hardcovers. There is already barely any difference and the e-book prices continue to trend upwardly.

  9. I don't have an e-book reader yet, Sam. My sister has one and has raved that it's easy to carry, and I certainly see more and more people on the bus reading them to and from work. I've been tempted to look at htem, because I like the idea of the free editions of books available 'out there' for everyone to read....but then I hesitate. Why are the copies free to read there, and for how long with they be free? What does it say about me that I don't want to pay for a book, then? I understand about univeral copyright and expired copyright, etc, so that's not my argument, it's more that I am afraid that if we go the route of only publishing e-books, then we will be the losers of so much more in the long run. I think that point of holding words only so long as we see them on the reader is interesting - because they come from nowhere,and disappear after, we don't have a physical representation to hold them in our minds. And that I think is where we will lose the most, if we go this route. The ability to look at a cover, or hold a book, and know - remember, recall what is inside, the characters, and all the sensory input we put into reading from our lives going on around while we read it.

    Context. It's called context, that we get from holding a book in our hands, the physical copy, and e-readers don't have enough physicality for me to remember all I read on them. I know, because even with the computer, I have to print out important things and hold them in my hands.

    Lovely post, and very good points you raise here, Sam.

  10. Beautifully put, Susan. You've eloquently added to the argument I was trying to put forward for consideration.

    I feel certain that if (please, not when) e-books become the dominant format, prices will rise even higher than they are today, and our that our loss will be much more than a monetary one.

    Thanks for your thoughts.