Does It Have To Be Either/Or?

ImageEarlier this week I was at an event where the prizes were awarded for an essay competition that had been set for our English with Creative Writing undergrads.  The topic they were asked to write on was: In our digital age, what value do books still have? and before the winners were announced a panel of speakers, drawn from different areas of the literary world, were asked to address this question themselves.

Fortunately, the audience was allowed their say as well because one of the problems I had with the responses from the panel was that there appeared to be a view forming that in the future it had to be either/or, the paper or the digital version and I don’t see that being the case at all. Certainly, at the moment, I happily alternate between the two, depending on whichever is the more convenient at the time.  If I’m out and about then it is likely to be the digital version of a book I have with me mainly because I have a back problem and the lighter my bag is the better.  My little i-Pad mini weighs less than most paperbacks and means I don’t have to carry a separate notebook or diary with me either.  What is more, if I’m going places where I might have to wait, I can have two books with me for the weight of one – a real benefit for those of us who spend time in outpatients on a regular basis.

At home, I am more likely to read with a real book.  To some extent this is because a lot of my reading at home is done for reading groups or teaching purposes and despite the search mechanisms that are now available on most e-readers I still find it easier to locate a passage that is sparked by discussion in a paper copy of a novel than I do on the electronic version.  All three of my reading groups started out really enthusiastic about being able to get the chosen texts on an e-reader but in each case we have veered back to the real book for ease of reference.

Of course this may change as the years go by.  I would hazard that there are very few people left who still choose to read from a handwritten scroll rather than a printed codex, but we are more than six hundred years on from the invention of the printing press.

So, I put my pennyworth in for a dual economy and the freedom to choose whichever format took my fancy at any particular time.  However, as the discussion developed, one area in which it appeared there really was a distinction was in respect of what we actually choose to download to our e-readers.  With the exception of classics available for free, we all agreed (and there were about fifty of us there) that we bought downloads that we wouldn’t really want to keep or to read again.  Anything that we really valued as a story we wished to return to we actually bought in book form.

Now, if you think about it there is a kind of perversity at work here.  If you want to hang onto a book it is much easier to do so in digital form.  To begin with, in my case at least, it means that I don’t have to find space for it on bookshelves that are already full to over-flowing.  In addition, if it’s a book to which I might wish to return I’m more likely to have it to hand anywhere if it’s on a device that accompanies me wherever I go.  But that isn’t what I do and it doesn’t appear to be what other people do either.  I would have asked if this came about because subconsciously we are all aware that we don’t actually own the books that we download, but only have them on lease from whichever company supplied them to us, but from the horrified looks on some of the audience’s faces when this was mentioned it was apparent that they hadn’t realised this was the case.

So, what do you put on your e-reader and why?  Is there a distinction between what you download and what you buy as a hard copy?  And, if you were forced to save just one format, which would it be?


43 thoughts on “Does It Have To Be Either/Or?

  1. Very interesting post, Alex. I’m still wedded to paper but I suspect that’s because I have such a large number of physical books waiting to be read that I can’t quite face an invisible TBR. With that experiential qualification, I agree with your idea of a mix appropriate to the reading circumstances. I would be very sorry to see physical books disappear. Quite apart from anything else I’m sure we’d all miss looking at other people’s bookshelves. Very pleased to see that you don’t use ‘Kindle’ as a default term for ereader as so many do. To me that’s a sign of the onward march of Amazon. It is, after all, a trade name.

    1. Well, I do have a Kindle as well, Susan, so I like to distinguish especially as I don’t always use the Kindle App on my i-Pad to download books with. And I quite agree about the pleasure of browsing round other people’s book shelves, not to mention peering over people’s shoulders on public transport in order to see just what it is that they are reading – so much easier with the paper version.

  2. Hi, Alex. I don’t know if my experience counts for anything, as I don’t really have what’s known as a standard ereader. I either read things in print or off my laptop. I guess the laptop is the closest thing I have to an ereader. But here’s something I’ve noticed in the short amount of time I’ve been using both (actually, I just two days ago got on my library’s website to read on OverDrive, and so my experience is brand new). What I have found is that if I want the standard or the most valuable or the most correct version of a classical or even of a brand new high quality piece of literary work, I have to resort to print editions, whereas even so renowned a body as my local library has mostly pulp crap on their website. They didn’t have even one digital copy of “Diana of the Crossways” (a work about which much critical work is currently being done) or “Daniel Deronda,” (a work about which a lot of critical work is regularly done), but they have what looks like a full series of novels by some hack novelist who doesn’t deserve a second glance. So, I think it’s not so much a matter of where I want to read something as what I want to read. Sad, but true, as the quality of writing declines and everyone with pen in hand decides they can write (and as publishers decide to publish them), the good works are left to vegetate and the crap has ereader market value. I may be overstating the case slightly, but this has been my experience in the short amount of time I’ve been reading online.

    1. I think it depends where you are sourcing your downloads from to some extent because I’m fairly sure if you went onto Project Gutenberg you would be able to get a copy of ‘Daniel Deronda’. However, if your libraries are anything like ours in the UK then the selection is likely to be very poor. I need to talk to our librarians about this because I’m not sure if it’s the buying policy that’s responsible or that the publishers are not prepared to licence them for borrowing.

      1. Good point about the buying policy vs. licensing. I hadn’t thought of that. And after all, it won’t kill me to read a few popular books. I didn’t look on Project Gutenberg, though I know of it, because I was I suppose lazily expecting my library, which is supposedly one of the best systems in New England, to have “everything.” That mythical “everything,” you know!

  3. I was initially very enthusiastic about my e-reader, when I realized how many classics were available, for free, and so many impossible to find in print, even to borrow from libraries (there is apparently only *one* copy of a particular book I want to read, in all the libraries of the world, and I’m guessing it’s not lent out). I haven’t bought any books for the e-reader, only a couple of short stories, because two years later, I still prefer paper. My e-reader is for convenience. Whenever I use it, I find myself want to get back to “real” books!

    1. It’s the convenience response that comes up every time, Lisa. The e-reader is useful, but not beloved. I am almost beginning to feel sorry for them. They are heading for a persecution complex.

  4. Here! Here! or it is Hear! Hear! I agree with the real book folks! Who wants to read
    some kindleized version of a classic? But before we completely dump on the ebook
    types—at least they’re reading—they’re not the “neither/nors”.

  5. Ah, the eternal debate. Although the practical advantages of an e-reader are undeniable, I would still, for as long as I’m physically able, much prefer to lug around physical books rather than their sanitised brothers. I use my Kindle for ARCs only as I find myself feeling distanced somewhat from the story – something I appreciate might be a bit odd and a mere psychological quirk of mine. Simply put, it just doesn’t feel the same. Plus, the amount of times I feel the need to flick back and forth between chapters comes more regularly than I realised and something that isn’t as easy with digital copy. Lastly, I feel it is crucial, unless we’re borrowing from the library, that those who can afford it actually bother to buy their books and don’t succumb too heavily to the freebies online. We need to keep our book industry alive – if our bookshops become instinct we’ll all be in tears.

    1. I would have to check the figures, Lucy, but I think it would be incorrect to say that the UK Independent Bookshop sector had been decimated in recent years simply because that would imply that only one in ten had closed when in fact the figure is much much higher. I for one really miss being able to call in to a local bookshop where the bookseller knows me and my tastes and so I really agreed that we have to take whatever action we can to keep those that are left alive.

  6. I love both! My Kindle has mostly books for entertainment and that I know I’ll never reread. It is so convenient for traveling, Sometimes I use it to decide whether or not to purchase a physical book as a gift, especially those for my grandchildren; I want them to have physical reminders of their initial pleasure in a book. My other physical books are those I’ll read again, especially nonfiction and reference books.
    For novels that I’ll probably never reread, the Kindle is perfect and avoids cluttering up already overflowing book shelves!

    1. The clutter issue is really important, Jenclair, isn’t it? One thing I do like about e-books is being able to download the first section free as a taster. I’ve often used that facility as a way of gauging a novel before ordering a ‘real’ copy.

  7. I definitely agree that I like the option of ebook or ‘real’ book but buy paper when it’s something I expect to value / want to endure. And yes, it’s in part the licensing vs. owning aspect. I was just reminded of how different my relationship is to my virtual library: my e-reader is a Sony Reader, and though I have bought ebooks from a few different sources, I do have a base library that I got through Sony — which is this week begin transferred in its entirely to Kobo, as the Sony Reader bookstore is closing down. It’s just weird that “my” books are so unstable. Then there’s the lurking anxiety that the entire technology might change and my ebooks will be no more use to me than my collection of cassette tapes or VHS movies: at least with paper, I know that no matter what else changes, I can still pick it up and read it! Also, like you, I find paper books much easier to navigate in. I don’t want an either / or choice, because I appreciate the convenience of the e-reader and especially like being able to borrow library books on it (though the selection really does skew towards the latest cruddy bestsellers) — but if I HAD to keep just one it would certainly be paper!

    1. A number of people have mentioned the poor selection of e-books available from libraries and I wonder if that too isn’t a question of licensing? Perhaps the publishers are unwilling to allow people to borrow digitally in case libraries stop buying the ‘real’ thing. Something else that worries me was brought up at another recent readers’ day where one of the authors on the panel mused about how easy it would be to change a text at a single stroke and corrupt the original message to suit the age. Not a nice thought.

  8. I love my ereader and depend on it for traveling and use on public transportation, but I don’t often buy books for it. Its main use for me is to check out library books, and I absolutely love that I can get 15 electronic books at once (more if I use my university’s library as well as the public one). Given the preference, and no weight constraints, I’ll generally still choose a physical book though. I like to turn pages.

    1. Yes, there’s something soothing about turning the pages and being able to see how far you are through a book. Getting a percentage read message doesn’t quite have the same satisfaction, does it?

  9. I find kindle useful, it’s another way of reading, but I still really prefer real books and can’t imagine that changing, but there is certainly enough room in my life for both.

    1. To be blunt, anything that allows me to read is OK really. I am of the reading the sauce bottle if there’s nothing else available, brigade!

  10. I don’t have an e-reader. But I find the discussion very interesting. For some people at least the e-reader seems to be fulfilling the more disposable end of reading – the library books we return, the paperbacks we pass on to a charity shop or a friend when we’ve finished. I suppose it comes down partly to the licensing aspect of e-readers – when we want a book to keep, we want to own it – and partly that aspect of showing people who you are or want to be seen as by displaying some books, which paper books are better for.

    Literary Relish notes above that she feels a bit more distanced from her e-texts and that reminds me of when I was working as an editor for a publishing company at the end of the 1990s – the boss said she could tell which of our books had been copy-edited onscreen because they had more mistakes in them. I don’t know whether this is just us accommodating to a new technology, or if we really do read screens differently.

    1. That’s really interesting, Helen. I know that when I was writing my doctorate, which was the first degree I didn’t hand write, I had to print it out in order to proof read it. I wonder if this is because we are part of the transitional generation or if it is true for those doing their degrees now,who have never known any other way?

  11. Tree books, any day – they’re beautiful as objects and this enhances the content. And we don’t read as well and as thoroughly on a screen in my view.

    1. No, I agree with you about that last point, Karen, but I wonder why that should be? After all they are the same words in the same order.

  12. I’m hopelessly devoted to my Kindle Fire and probably read about 90% on it now. With each new version of e-readers, the ‘flicking backwards and forwards’ issue gets easier and smoother, and while I used to insist on paper for factual books, I’m now quite happy with the ability to go to notes or zoom on illustrations on the Fire. And I love the ability to highlight and make notes without actually defacing a real book. I suspect the ‘not owning’ issue will resolve itself in time – already you can share an e-collection with other people, so unless you all die together(!), the collection will live on, and can then be shared with new people.

    But I doubt that paper books will disappear – I suspect that they’ll gradually become more beautifully produced to be an art form in themselves. I love my Kindle, but I also love to read a gorgeous hardback with superb illustrations and quality paper and fonts. I do suspect that cheapo pulp paperbacks will eventually disappear though. Having recently cleared out a lifelong library built up by a relative, I must say it came home to me that in reality most books are not ones that are really worth passing down. Even in my family of compulsive readers, most of us either had the books already or didn’t want them. And even the charities seemed less than enthusiastic about dragging away a couple of thousand paperbacks, with one in particular saying that the growth of e-readers meant that paperbacks don’t sell as well as they used to. But the beautiful Folio Society books in the collection found homes…

    1. One of the points that was made in the discussion FF was that very one about the influence e-readers were having on the production values of paper texts. And, you’ve reminded me that somewhere over the weekend I came a cross a reference to a tumblr site where each day they celebrate a book that only works as a paper text. I must try and find the address and do a post about it.

  13. I have an iPad mini too, and I use it basically as an eReader. I love its size and reading on the lighted screen in bed at night is a wonderful experience. I’ve not used it outside of the home much though. So far, I’ve only downloaded public library eBooks using ‘OverDrive’. Have not bought any yet. I find the library catalogue has sufficient materials for me already. I can also listen to audiobooks with it. So, am glad of its versatility, albeit I do read the real books too. I agree with you, it’s not an either/or scenario.

    1. I discovered yesterday that I could feed my audiobook collection through the car radio via my I-Pad mini, Arti. Now there’s a real benefit if you do a lot of driving.

  14. I use both and like that I can, but given the option of choosing one, I would prefer a non-digital book. Printed simply provides for me something like an ambience that is more conducive to entering into the world of the books story. That is the best way for me to describe it. I still enjoy the reading on my iPad, yet I know at all times in the deep recesses if my mind that I’m “reading” a story, never really getting lost in the story. Strange isn’t it…

  15. There are pluses and minuses for both paper and e-books. I love real books, but for long books, such as many of the classics I prefer the e-book versions. They’re not as heavy or as unwieldy to hold and I can enlarge the font. If it has x-ray available it’s easy to track back and find links to characters etc. If it doesn’t there’s the search facility which is like an index to the book, which paper versions just don’t have. And having had the same experience as FictionFan I’ve realised that most books are not worth passing on. They deteriorate and quite a lot of my old paperback books are so brittle I fear to read them. But I miss the physicality of a paper book.

    1. In fact, Margaret, there re some books that I couldn’t read if I wasn’t able to download them. These are those that come in at over 600 pages. They are too big for my reading stand to cope with and I certainly wouldn’t be able to hold them. This means that I hd to buy both ‘The Goldfinch’ and ‘The Luminaries’ this winter because I had no other way of accessing them.

  16. I am definitely both/and when it comes to print and digital books. Onto my Kindle goes free books or books that aren’t available in print. Otherwise it is print for me which is my preference. I don’t think it is strange at all that books people want to keep they buy in print. Digital is very much an ephemeral media. that book you buy for you Kindle you do not own as you point out, you can’t actually see or touch, you have not control over “saving” it, we are at the mercy of Amazon and the publisher both of whom we assume will be around in 20 years but you just never really know, do you? Whereas a book, I can hold it in my hand and whether or not it survives on my shelves is entirely up to me barring any sort of disaster. I think you inadvertently said it all when you were talking about your book group and how you all started off enthusiastic about ebooks “but in each case we have veered back to the real book for ease of reference.” Digital books are convenient to read but they don’t seem real. Not sure if that will ever change.

    1. That’s a really interesting point, Stefanie, about the longevity of sellers and publishers. I have many books on my shelves published by companies that are no longer there and bought from book shops that have long since closed down. But I don’t have to worry about the books disappearing.

      1. Prefer print. I don’t like the dominance of Amazon and don’t want to encourage it further by going Kindle. The collapse of independent bookshops is a disaster. Physical books may well survive as luxury art objects in the same way that vinyl records have a profitable niche – but that seems to me such a dimishment of what the book has meant in our culture.

        1. I couldn’t agree more about the collapse of the Independent bookshop, Ian. I did the eighty mile round trip to visit my nearest one last week and discovered that they are now only just holding on by the skin of their teeth. If they go I think my next nearest is another twenty miles onto that.

  17. As far as I know (and it may have changed) no one has yet tackled the problem of ebook ‘ownership’. When you buy an ebook, you are effectively getting it on a long loan. If the publisher closed down, or stopped providing the book, it would just disappear. That’s why the university libraries in the early days had all the science journals digitally AND in paper, because if the journal closed down, they’d lose their copies. So it does make sense to only read stuff on ebook that you don’t want to keep, because you may not get to keep it in the long run. I am completely with you on there being both formats available. Books have long been multi-media – hardback, paperback, audio, etc, and long may that last!

    1. I think that is the most sensible way to think of this debate. We have merely added another format to those we have available and changed the discussion we all used to have about the relative merits of hardback and paperback for the paper versus digital.

  18. I Love the portability of my e reader but i find i read differently when I use it. I seem to skim more than I do when reading a printed version. So if the narrative is such that it requires concentration or the language deserves a slow pace, then e readers don’t seem to work as well for me.

    1. If I need to make notes, even though in theory I could make them on the e-reader I still prefer a real book. I think this is partly to do with the fact that I have yet to find a way of printing those notes off and being able to see them all at once and move them about.

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