I’ll let you in on a little secret:
I like to read. I love to read. Sometimes I find myself on a toilet seat for far longer than necessary, reading the back of the nearest shampoo bottle or toothpaste. Bet you didn’t know that many shampoo bottles add humor to their directions or include little quips on the bottle for compulsive readers like me.
I’m a binge reader too. If I get into a book, I may sacrifice sleep just to finish, and a good series will surely leave me exhausted. Blogs too. It took me a while to start reading blogs, but once I did, I found myself reading while driving (it’s a problem I know) reading while walking, and reading while doing just about anything.
So knowing how much I love to read, is it any wonder when the debate between e-books and paper books came up on Twitter that I plopped myself on the fence between the two sides? Despite my seeming agnosticism toward the e-book/p-book divide, I still feel quite strongly about some of the arguments presented.
I am someone who values literacy as much as I value honesty and it is from that perspective that I would like to address some of the arguments I’ve heard in many discussions about new technology in the world of books.
1) E-books will destroy printed books- If only I had a fucking nickel every time I heard a slippery slope argument applied toward new technology. The thing is though, sometimes they work out. Sometimes new technology does make the previous technology obsolete, antiquated, useless. Sometimes though, the new technology just fills a separate niche than its predecessor. Personally I feel that is the current path with e-book technology. Paper books have certain tangible utility that the majority of the world just isn’t ready to let go of completely. They can be sold and traded easily at yard sales and used book stores. They can be loaded up and donated to libraries and schools with little effort. P-books can be colored on and chewed up by babies. They can be made in pop-up or touch and feel form. Paper books can be a medium of artwork all their own. And we don’t just get rid of artistic mediums. FFS people still paint in Fresco style despite how many easier (more modern) options exist. So no, I don’t think p-books are going away anytime soon.
2) But what if #1 happens?- No I mean like way in the future. What if we had no more paper books and the whole world was archived digitally? We could completely lose the whole of human knowledge in one apocalyptic scenario. Now I think, yes, having all the books in the world only in digital form may end up being disastrous. I don’t think it means the whole of human knowledge will be lost. Mostly because much of that knowledge is stored in human brains (including the rudimentary concept of the printing press). We won’t have to start back over in prehistory trying to figure out how everything works because so many humans have at least a basic understanding of how things work. But yes, we might lose the works of Voltaire; the poetry of Emily Dickenson; the childhood wonderment of Where the Wild Things Are. We might lose those and we might never get them all back except for the fragments that exist in our memories. That would be sad, but the same thing could happen with a world of paper books if paper ever becomes a rare valuable commodity. The same thing did happen with the fire at Alexandria (I can’t even begin to calculate the loss of knowledge there). There are a million what if’s. It does not follow that we should not pursue new and better technology because we can envision at least one scenario that would be harmful. No, we have to determine how likely the harmful scenario is as well as the potential degree of harm. At this point I feel the risk/benefit analysis of e-books and p-books is such that it makes sense to continue to do both. I may not always think so. I might eventually find that e-books are potentially very dangerous or that p-books are completely useless. I don’t know but I am not going to let either possibility worry me till I have evidence to direct me.
But I want to point out something that I think will happen as e-books become more popular, something that is already happening in the world of printing. Printing is becoming more efficient. No longer do publishers have to predict what will be popular to the world at large. They can test the marketing waters by doing early releases in e-book format and if sales and demand warrant it they can then decide to print individual books. Fence post sitters like myself may buy both if the quality is high enough. While this may mean that books are not printed in the numbers they were before (and many of them left to gather dust on a clearance rack in a bargain book store), it will help ensure that books that are printed are also demanded. Consider how publishing companies have done business in the past. They print a first time printing of ______ many copies that make their way out into the world, and if those copies sell, the book continues to be printed until it stops selling. Then if a book starts to gain popularity after the publishing company has ceased tracking sales, the book may never hope to be reprinted. It may fall into cult fandom of obscurity where only the lucky few come across the works. This is remedied with e-books because the limited printing does not mean the limited access. Anyone with a computer can access a book that was published electronically. Not only that but publishing companies would not need to invest effort or money into tracking electronic sales which would allow them to decide if renewed popularity necessitates renewed printing. Starting with e-book publishing also gives authors a greater sense of agency over their own work and helps them escape being tied to contracts with print publishing companies. These are all benefits to e-books that are at least partly realized already.
3) E-books limit access to the wealth of human knowledge-This only applies to when e-books are either the only books available or have limited printing to very small numbers because in our current model we have both e-books and p-books which only serves to increase availability to the wealth of human knowledge. Now some might argue that any e-book that is published in only e-book form and not p-book form is limiting access to at least that book (I think of the economically disadvantaged kid who can’t buy a Kindle argument). The thing is, that argument seems to ignore that most books published only in electronic from are done so because the author cannot find a publisher to print it yet. Author’s practically have to hit the literary lottery to be considered for publishing. This was the case before e-books and is the case now. By publishing first in the cheapest and most accessible way, author’s are essentially creating resumes with which to sell their worth to print publishing companies. They have a greater chance of having their works published than ever before, thereby increasing access yet again.
If it is not clear I am arguing that a combination of p and e books is the best way (currently) to ensure maximum access to maximum literature. I disagree that economically disadvantaged people are forbidden access when so many books are first released in electronic form. The reason for this is simple. Economic advantage is a spectrum where abject poverty exists at one extreme. People in abject poverty have absolutely no access to purchasing books (in theory at least). Often they have no means for storing long term books that have been given to them. They certainly cannot access books in electronic form if it required them to own an e-reader or even a computer to read the book. So if a book is published first in e-book form, there seems to be no hope that a person in abject poverty will ever read it. The thing is, the same holds true if the book is published first in paper form. The likelihood of any given library holding any given book (except the most popular books) is actually quite slim. However the likelihood that a library holds a public access computer with access to the library’s purchased/shared e-books as well as access to the “wealth of human knowledge that has entered the public domain” is pretty high (and increasing all the time). This means that, for any given book, a random person has a greater chance of accessing it if published in e-book (even if it is never published in p-book). The assumption that either form might be available to every person everywhere just doesn’t follow. Which is why, given our current model, I absolutely advocate printing and electronic publishing to maximize access. I may not always advocate both though. It is entirely possible that access to the internet will eventually be universal and at that point e-books could be universal as well. Printing in this scenario may become a fringe practice, an artistic medium in its own right much like pressing records is now. I do not, as a rule, completely dismiss the idea that p-books will become fringe nor do I oppose it necessarily so long as access is fully addressed. I am still not going to push toward such an outcome because I don’t think we are anywhere near where we need to be as society to start limiting p-book printing. People’s access to literature struggles with a plethora of mediums as it is. Why on earth would I advocate making it even more difficult by restricting the use of any medium?
4)You can’t scribble in the margin of e-books- This one is the easiest to address. Many people want to highlight, to take notes, and to bookmark key locations in the books they read. P-books appear to make this easy. All you need is a pencil, pen, highlighter, or whatever you have on hand. However, p-books also kind of make it harder because often once you highlight, you are stuck with it. You can’t exactly erase those pen scribbled notes in the margin either. With many e-books you absolutely can take notes in a variety of electronic ways. You can also edit those notes and sometimes see what other people in the world have highlighted in the same book. E-books have made note taking interactive in a way that p-books cannot.
5) All I need for my p-book is it and some light and I am good to go- Yep, you are right. Probably the best argument ever for me to remember to plug in my Kindle every couple of weeks.
6) Corporations will make e-books like video games- Oh you know the scenario, you have to buy the newest game system to play the newest games. It won’t happen, at least not with the trends in e-books currently. Rather than follow the lead of the video game industry, making a given game require an expensive console, having customers buy a different cartridge for each type of console, etc., companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble have chosen to maximize profits by giving customers as many choices as possible. Not always will you have your Kindle or Nook with you but you will probably have that smart phone for the wait in the doctor’s office. Have some down time at work? Pick up right where you left off in your latest romance novel while sitting at the office computer. Your books are available wherever there is an internet connection. The only thing that buying a new e-reader affords you is new features for the same old books you love.
7) E-books don’t feel/smell like real books- Once again you got me here. If you’re buying books for the way they feel in your hand or smell, then you will be one of the people keeping the fringe market for books alive if the utility of mass printed books becomes obsolete. I recommend boning up on how to make a printing press and how to bind books at some point in the distant future.
8)Books are sentimental and can be given as gifts- E-books can be given as gifts as well and the only reason we haven’t yet attached sentiment to them is because they are new forms of technology. Eventually as the technology becomes immersed in our culture we will find ways to make it more creative, more personal. That doesn’t erase the sentiment contained within the books we already own, those inscriptions and notes passed down to future generations. Nor will e-books take those sentimental artifacts away from you. You get to keep the memories you already have. Just accept that as society changes, our ways of creating mementos will change as well.
9) What about Orwell– I am going to go ahead and say that it is a valid worry. I mean Kindle did, in a moment of pure irony, reach into customers’ Kindles and delete two George Orwell books they had purchased. They did this because the person who sold the titles to them was not licensed to do so. The publishing company still retained the rights and at the time the easiest solution for Amazon was to pull the books out and refund the money. It was such a radical move that even Amazon was contemplating the validity of the slippery slope arguments that inevitably followed. It was the wrong move to make and it inspired legitimate questions about what Amazon might do to our content were it deemed inappropriate for whatever reason. Giving corporations control of the content of our historical records might seem extremely frightening to anyone who has read 1984. Orwell weaves a complex society whose whole history can change in the span of one day at the will of the government. It is a possibility. It is one that we remember well from tales of “Big Brother” even if we never took the time to read 1984 ourselves. But it is still a slippery slope argument. There has never been any indication that Amazon will stoop to changing content. The singular experience of them removing content was done for a just reason, and yet even Amazon questioned the ethics behind the move. So for me, what it takes is at least one instance where a corporation removes content (for a reason other than they aren’t allowed by law to sell it) or alters content (without the creators permission for any reason) and I will seriously rethink my opinion on this whole debate. I will might even buy my own printing press and start creating conspiracy theory pamphlets for anyone who will listen. But I am not going to hold my breath or horde my water waiting for it to happen.
Instead of seeing these companies use their power to suppress information, we have seen the opposite. As technology has increased, so has the access to information. We now have, at our fingertips, the ability to read documents that were once unique or exceedingly rare, previously available only to a few. Many such documents were rescued from the brink of extinction through digitization. Now I can’t hold these artifacts in my hands but I can manipulate them on a screen and scrutinize their contents. I can read interpretations of them by various people who previously didn’t have access and happen to have more knowledge than me on the subject.
Technology changes us. Sometimes negatively but mostly for the better. Allowing those what if’s to take over seems about as pointless to me as Pascal’s Wager. I need some evidence that the a given possibility is significantly more probable than any doomsday scenario I can dream up.
I would like to close with a point relating to the encouragement of literacy. Literacy is my chosen field and from my perspective the bigger picture here. In terms of whether someone is going to be a life-long reader, adolescence is often the make it or break it period. Many people think it is early childhood (remember all those studies that show babies who were read to tend to read for pleasure more as adults?). I am not saying that reading in early childhood doesn’t help. It does. Instead I am saying that a huge number of children enter adolescence as apathetic readers and come out living, and breathing books. The flip side is that a number of vigorous adolescent readers end up completely disenchanted with reading by adulthood.
And it all boils down to choice.
Adolescence is a tumultuous period fraught with a struggle for a sense of agency and belonging. As parents/teachers/counselors/libraries we cannot always give an adolescents the free agency they desire. We have to guard their safety after all. But that guarding is not necessary with books and other forms of written words. We can pretty much give learners free reign when it comes to choosing a book (parents should always be prepared for some confusing questions though). It is important to note that giving adolescents ‘free reign’ also means the choice to put down a book. All too often the choice not to read is ignored with struggling readers. We tell them they will like it if they get past the first chapter, after the second chapter, before the epilogue. That isn’t giving readers a choice. Forcing children to finish a book they hate not only teaches them to resent you but also teaches them to resent books. Not only that but sometimes kids give up books for all the same reasons we give up books, not just because they are boring. They put them down because they are scary. They put books down because the themes are more/less adult than they can identify with. They put books down because they trigger horrible memories. They put books down because the author sucks. It ignores the rightful (age appropriate) agency that children have when you force a child to read something ze doesn’t enjoy.
That choice does not only involve what types of literature to choose (I know I said books but I mean books, blogs, magazines, newspaper, comics, graphic novels, Pokemon cards, etc), but also their preferred medium to read them on. There are limits to how freely we allow our children to read whatever, whenever. Those limits involve costs, accessibility, practicality, and personal conviction. Taking the limits into consideration though, parents/teachers/counselors/libraries should be as liberal as possible when offering literature to children. Yes we will censor some things (I do it too) but we should try not to.
I am going to say the same thing holds true for adults. Obviously we don’t typically require adults to read certain books (except as class assignments) but we also shouldn’t insist on a medium. We cannot expect people to enjoy reading if we tell them “you must read p-books or you are a tool of the corporate machine” or “you must change over to e-books or you are a Luddite.” Neither one is necessarily true, but even if they are, neither is necessarily wrong either. That is the important thing to remember. Enjoying tradition is ok. Enjoying invention is ok. Insisting that the new or old way is certainly better when all the evidence shows they both have their merits, is not ok.
Personally, I enjoy tradition and invention both, for very different reasons. Then again, I am a fence sitter after all.