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25 Ways E-Readers Can’t Beat the Old-Fashioned Book

The iPad landed and techno-enthusiasts everywhere hurried, once again, to put on their coroner hats and issue preemptive reports on the death of the old-fashioned book. Now, it may be a different matter for those who crave, in books, the same button-punching dazzle offered by their gadgetry, but to this whisper-of-the-pages-loving reader all the declaiming of late seems a little, um, declamatory.

Before we cue Taps, let’s all step away from the media juggernaut, take a deep breath of reason, and recall a few (just a few!) of the attributes, consistently neglected in the now-daily hubbub, that continue to make the old-fashioned book not only a viable technology, but, well, a profoundly wonderful one we really don’t want to lose.

1 . The book unites delivery device and content. E-readers, drained of battery power, revert to hunks of plastic.

2. The book begets libraries and independent bookstores, irreplaceable bastions of culture and community.

3. The book, beyond cover price, comes with no proprietary fee. Your preferred e-reader sets you back $250 to $500.

4. The book is not an inventory portal, therefore not subject to proprietary restrictions in content; i.e.: Due to licensing or discretionary considerations, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley cannot be downloaded to this e-reading device. (Think this is a joke? See note* below.)

5. The book is not a brand, therefore free from functional limitations imposed by a manufacturer; i.e.: The e-book you’re requesting is not supported by your e-reader’s operating system. Upgrade to our newest e-reader or follow this link to our checkout to download OS-2011.5.

6. The book withstands excessive dust, direct sunlight, splashed soup, or dropped potatoes.

7. The book is hard to eradicate except by fire. Is any e-reading device likely to reach — with zero loss of content — an age comparable to civilization’s oldest incunabula?

8. The book, presented as gift, shows regard for the recipient’s tastes, being a single selection and/or bearing the giver’s handwritten inscription.

9. The book can be autographed by its author.

10. The book, by conspicuous display of title and/or author, occasions conversation between mutually inclined strangers.

11. The book may be safely read in the bath.

12. The book relieves you of the screen in an age of relentless screen-media assaults upon the eye.

13. The book is not an immediate access point for innumerable diversions (e-mail, video games, etc.).

14. The book’s printed editions are traceably distinct, a defense against manipulations of fact or history.

15. The book does not “transmit and receive,” except in mysterious ways. No need to fear an Orwellian eye embedded in the page.

16. The book cannot be “swiped remotely” by the powers that be.

17. The book’s publisher may go broke without imperiling access to additional content.

18. The book, bought second-hand or borrowed, yields up fascinating ephemera: grocery lists, love notes, locks of hair, receipts, etc., bringing the reader into poignant contact with an unknown fellow human being.

19. The book complements your mantelpiece.

20. The book boasts many practical uses beyond communication (as furniture, makeshift stairs, etc.). E-readers — oddly shaped and breakable — are as obsolescent as other computer junk once they quit working.

21. The book is not invariably manufactured in China.

22. The book accommodates ingenuity of format: children’s books, art books, illuminated texts, pop-up books, fold-out maps, etc.

23. The book makes a meaningful heirloom.

24. The book may be safely left unattended on the beach. As gizmo it is not a hot steal.

25. The book is not a shopping cart.

*“Last week…the creators of a Web comic version of the classic novel, called “Ulysses Seen,” said that Apple required them to remove any images containing nudity before the comic was approved as an application for the iPad.”New York Times, June 13, 2010

UPDATE: June 16, 2010 — Apple recants. Still, a defender of literature this does not make.

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15 Comments to 25 Ways E-Readers Can’t Beat the Old-Fashioned Book

On Jun 14, 2010, Loretta commented:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m printing this list out and keeping it handy. Probably tucked into the latest book I’m reading.

On Jun 14, 2010, by Mark commented:

Loretta: You’re more than welcome. I find myself adding to this list almost daily. Long live the book! ~Mark

On Jun 14, 2010, Angie commented:

Super list! Thanks.

On Jun 14, 2010, chacha1 commented:

I enjoyed this and agree with it wholeheartedly, but at the same time must confess I downloaded Kindle PC yesterday and … I like it. Given a disposable-reading habit averaging 120+ books per year, being able to read on my laptop – a device I already own – is going to save money and space and carbon, since I will not be driving to a bookstore or having physical books shipped to me at the same rate as in years past.

Physical books will always have a place in my life, but I think there’s room for alternate means of content delivery. :-)

On Jun 14, 2010, Mark commented:

chacha1: “There’s room for an alternate means of content delivery” — absolutely!

What all the death-of-the-book technocrats wish us to forget, however, is that a world including Kindles, Nooks, and other hi-tech baubles does not automatically equal a world populace eager to toss the printed word over the gunwhale (and, moreover, line the pockets of those more interested in profit and glamor than a healthy culture of literature and ideas).

Electronics help to spread the written word (uh, sometimes — see numbers 1-7, 16, 17, and 23 above), and that’s nice when it happens, but print preserves the written word as electronics never can (so long as publishers take care in their paper selection, as the folks at the Permanence Matters Initiative remind us), and that is but one — one — of the old-fashioned book’s multitudinous virtues. ~Mark

On Jun 14, 2010, by Mark commented:

Angie: Glad you like the list. Congrats, by the way, on those 626 hand-written pages! ~Mark

On Jun 18, 2010, by Mark commented:

Addendum — June 18, 2010: “Whether, for the future humanist reader, the book in its present form will remain unchanged is in come ways an idle question. My guess (but it is no more than a guess) is that by and large it will not be transformed drastically because it has adapted so well to our requirements — though these, indeed, may change…
“The question I ask myself instead is this: In these new technological spaces, with these artifacts that will certainly coexist with (and in some cases supplant) the book, how will we succeed in still being able to invent, to remember, to learn, to record, to reject, to wonder, to exult, to subvert, to rejoice? By what means will we continue to be creative readers instead of passive viewers?
“Just as a certain text is never expressed identically in different tongues, books and electronic memories, like electronic memories and the memories we hold in our mind, are different creatures and possess different natures, even when the text they carry is the same. …They are instruments of particular kinds, and their qualities serve diverse purposes in our attempt to know the world. Therefore any opposition that forces us to eliminate one of them is worse than false: it is useless.” Alberto Manguel, –A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press 2010)

On Jun 22, 2010, Emily (Super Reader Girl) commented:

Wonderful post, Mark! (This is Emily B. from elementary school :) I’ve been contemplating the same thing lately and, though there are a few definite perks to e-reading, I don’t think I could EVER possibly prefer it. I LOVE a good cover, I love carrying the book around. I love the feel of raised text (when it exists) on the cover and the entirely different FEEL given to the reading experience by a physical book (for me) versus when I am reading something from my PC (no e-reader yet). You make some excellent points and I’d like to link to your post from my book reviews site in the next couple days. Do you prefer this location or your personal blog (I noticed it does not seem to allow comments)?

On Jun 22, 2010, Hank commented:

While I admit to a paper book bias for all the reasons mentioned, eBooks provide the possibility for authors to dramatically increase their per unit profit for books sold. Some authors are doing direct deals with Amazon and Barnes and Noble, bypassing the publishing apparatus, and doing quite well. We’re definitely in the midst of a publishing revolution, and it’s not all bad.

eBooks will also decrease the ridiculously high cost of college text books. And, if you tend to be techno-geek, it makes a lot more sense to buy an eBook of How to (fill in the blank) in 30 days when the shelf life for that content is a year or less.

On Jun 22, 2010, by Mark commented:

Emily: So nice to hear from you! I’m glad you found Soul Shelter, and of course I’d be happy for you to link to the post. Go ahead and use as your reference. Nice book review blog, by the way.
Happy reading. ~Mark

On Jun 22, 2010, by Mark commented:

Hank: Good points, all. Old and new can — and ought to — coexist and complement one another. As an author myself, I’d be loath to altogether shut out the opportunities afforded by electronic text, even as I continue to defend the virtues of the good old codex. A particularly nice point you make about highly topical or quickly dated texts; I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps e-text is optimal for that sort of material(?). ~Mark

On Jun 26, 2010, Diana commented:

I love your list but can I add the smell and feel of paper, the ability to dog-ear it, and finding things tucked inside a book 10 years later. Usually what you find is yourself, 10 years younger.
Oh, and margin notes, in your own scribble!

I won’t even get into typography, the art of making things not only readable but — by choice of font and calculated spacing — visually compelling.

On Jun 27, 2010, by Mark commented:

Diana: Thanks for the nice amendments. The book as personal time-capsule, yes indeed. I’ve got an offline list much longer than the one presented here, which includes that idea as well. Thanks for reading. And for sharing those beautiful works of art on your own blog! ~Mark

On Sep 23, 2010, LJ Laine commented:

Must we choose sides? I love books, and when I could, I read whenever I could and whatever I could.

I can no longer see well enough to read a book off the shelf. I have a Nook that allows me to enlarge the font and read. What a Godsend this has been!

Yup, still buy books and although I cannot read them, the familiarity is there for me. For instance, I own and carry a Bible – I know a lot of what’s in there and still feel its power even though the words are lost to my eyes.

I hear you, advocates of the bound and printed word. Just remember, words make sentences, sentences make a story, and an electronic story is better than no story at all.

On Oct 9, 2010, Newspaper Clippings… « The Adventures of Megan and Blog commented:

[…] 25 ways e-readers can’t beat the old-fashioned book by M. Allen Cunningham Sent to me by my grandmother with the words, “Maybe you are right!!!” written at the top. The two of us have an ongoing debate about the Kindle vs. the real book. My grandma loves her Kindle. I avoid Amazon whenever possible. Something about this seems backwards. […]

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