Posted by: Jeanie F | April 9, 2010

Are E-Readers Really the Problem?

With the new iPad hitting the market, the controversy between “real” books and electronic readers is likely to intensify.

Linda Holmes, the author of the NPR blog “Monkey See” has posted a great article that addresses the ongoing defensiveness of some readers towards the e-book. Many people prefer the physical experience of holding a book, enjoying the cover, flipping the pages – things that an e-reader doesn’t necessarily provide. Holmes specifically addresses the oft-refererenced experience of “smelling books” – owning up to the fact that “it has been scientifically demonstrated that there exists an old-book smell that contains ‘a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.'” To this she adds that it “sounds like either the world’s most unexpectedly palatable funeral parlor or the world’s most disappointing wine.” She suggests that, unless you happen to be a collector of very old books, the “smell” that you so appreciate may be mildew.

This topic is really just her entry into an excellent discussion of the tension between e-book readers and “real” book readers, and her conclusion is that the importance of reading – and the enjoyment of reading – comes not from the format but from the content. Yes, she writes in defense of the Kindle, but her larger point is well taken. She says that she reads more on the Kindle because it’s cheaper and easier to get the books she wants, and the physical elements of the book are not important to her. Does this make her less of a “real” reader? She makes a solid point that it does not.

I believe that this controversy in format is rooted in a fear that we are about to lose something that we love – long hours spent in a great bookstore, browsing the endless rows of possibility; the excitement of finding an intriguing cover that leads you to a book you’ve never seen; the sight of your most beloved books, lined up on a shelf waiting for you to just flip through them once again; that moment when you walk into a wonderful indie bookstore and know that you are among friends.

It’s true that there may be some threat posed by the appearance of electronic readers, but I think the greater threat lies in the increasing number of people who just don’t read. They aren’t buying books in any format and publishers, competing for a shrinking number of customers, are playing it safer. Fewer new writers find an avenue into the publishing world, more books with less substance and originality are heavily promoted, and only a few blockbusters receive prominence in the front windows of the ever-expanding giant book chains.

Instead of arguing about format, why don’t we readers go out and teach a bunch of people to love reading as much as they love TV, their computers, Facebook, and video games?


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