Learning to Love the E-book

An Adjustment to a New Kind of Tangibility

I bought my first tablet (an iPad mini) last fall. It was an impulse purchase after I did some hard overtime working and had a small stack of dollars to spend on myself. An unusual occurrence. I’ve been surprised so far at its utility, and at my frequent use of it. I’m writing this blog post from it, in fact. It’s somewhat difficult, with squidgey buttons, but it’s lighter and cooler on my lap, so there’s that.

With this purchase, a new character entered my life: the e-book. I use the Kindle and iBooks apps (alternating purchases between the platforms largely due to price differences). I also still read and buy real, tangible books. The kind that can give you papercuts and take up more space in your messenger bag.

I see benefits to both. I know I’m nowhere near alone in that.

My intellectual grappling with this experience is shaped, in large part, by my upbringing. I am the daughter of an avid book lover and collector.

I grew up cherishing bound paper.

Books tower on every wall of my father’s bedroom, stacked in every corner. His dresser looms, a small island in the middle of the room, concealed by turf of more books. And there are more, tons (without exaggeration) stored in the basement of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, where my father worked for four decades before retiring earlier this year. Even more stacked in the attic of our home, and in the unoccupied (and currently unlivable) apartment that my grandfather built below my childhood home when I was a small child.

Books everywhere. A mix of the collectible sort with beautiful leather binding and gold edges and the handworn, loved sort — for instance, the Calvin and Hobbes collection with binding creased from all the times in my youth when I would crawl onto my dads bed and crack one open to read with him in the afternoon sun while he tried to nap.

My dad would even take my math textbooks from my sister and I after we finished a year of class, because brushing up on basic calculus was an enviable pastime to this engineer, and how terrible it would be to see those books full of knowledge get discarded.

It has been my dad’s first project of retirement to catalog them all. I fear the size of that database when it’s done.

My father was the type of book lover who admonished the dog-eared corner. I’d hide my penciled-up paperbacks from my English courses from him. To me, it was a method of learning to transcribe experience next to text. To my father, a disrespect of the item.

My dad covered the dust jackets of my well-read hardcover books with the plastic coverings you find on library books. My entire Harry Potter collection sits on the shelf of my San Francisco apartment, reflecting the light. The dust jackets are in mint condition under their crisp sheathes.

So I was raised to have a respect for the printed word. My father had significant influence (though he may not know it) on my decision to major in English in college.

As I’ve been adjusting to this world of ebooks, and enjoying it, loving that I have books with me everywhere, even if I didn’t think to pack them with me when I walked out the door, I’ve had that small pang of guilt.

Now I am adjusting.

What has helped has been a deliberate and inquisitive look into the ways my consumption of tangible and e-books differ. This is still evolving, but here are some of my initial inclinations:

I’ll still buy beautiful books, to touch and hold. Vintage illustrated encyclopedias. Children’s books that are meant to be wide, thin, and tactile. Large-format overpriced Taschen books bound in cloth. They mostly don’t exist as ebooks, because why.

I will buy books to support authors I know and hold in esteem, especially if they are “small time.” A few months back, at the Green Arcade bookstore on Market (which you should patronize, if you get a chance), I was attending a meeting of folks to strategize around getting SF to divest from fossil fuels. Rebecca Solnit, a long time SF resident, activist and prolific author, was there, and I was so delighted to make her acquaintance, and support her (and Green Arcade) right then and there by purchasing her gorgeous anthropological masterpiece, Infinite City. She signed it: “To Rachel, the cool.” There’s not much to describe the feeling of reading that.

I feel a unique sense of anxiety about ebooks. There are admittedly more books on my shelves that I’ve never read than those that I have (I have this tendency to give away books once I’ve read them, and never see them again). But I never stare at my shelves and feel the weight of those unturned pages. Owning the books carries its own sort of personal satisfaction. They decorate space, and are such patient waiters.

Conversely, the ebooks on my Kindle shelf, while light as air and invisible to the eye until sought out, have this strange weight of utility. “I downloaded you so I could read you. You serve no other purpose,” I think. I must finish them because they are waiting for me. It’s a magnified version of the feeling I have when looking at the significant unread count in my Google Reader (sniff sniff), or every time I hit the “save to Pocket” link in my browser. These words are queued up. No one likes waiting in line.

The ebook is preferable when I’m in learning mode. If you were to take a look at my Kindle bookshelf, you’d probably get a good idea of the world in which I work: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky; Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig; The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver; Contagious by Jonah Berger; and so on. It’s helpful to be able to highlight passages and refer back to them easily later at the touch of a few buttons. Particularly if the moment when I might need to do that is impossible to predict (even for Nate Silver).

I’m finding increased utility for ereaders’ search functions for novels too, but haven’t yet given in fully. But for those kinds of books with a million characters and innumerable parallel story lines, the ability to quickly find out when someone was first introduced, and be reminded, “oh yeah, that’s one of the Riders of Rohan” is quite handy. Like with many of the ways technology has made tasks in our life easier and more automated, I feel a hesitance: do I embrace this new laziness? Is it tainting the authentic experience? What is the cost of such passivity? As I said, I’m not sold.

I feel weird taking my iPad in the bathroom, or to the beach. There’s still a need in this life for books that can go to unsavory or messy places, or can afford to get lost or be left behind in a hostel.

I’m reading more, now that I have an iPad. It’s inarguable, and simple. I’m a more voracious reader, now that its so much easier to have books with me, and buy them at a moment’s notice. I like this.

These are just some of my initial thoughts. There are more to come, as I wrestle with my love for the printed word, my geekery, and nostalgia. It will be an interesting few years, watching how this little glowy device changes my reading habits while I watch my father sort through and remember each and every book he’s collected.