Each year I spend most of the summer traveling, which leads to an annual dilemma: which books to bring. I wrote about the problem a number of years back for Comment: “I Know What You Read Last Summer.” Should I bring the books I want to read with me, planning deliberately, or should I live off the land, reading whatever I happen to find in bookstores as I travel? This is a similar challenge to that faced by campers planning an excursion into the wilderness — and to be honest, it’s part of the fun.
When I talk about this now, however, an increasingly number of reading friends propose a simple way of untying my Gordian knot: “Get a Kindle already!” they cry, wondering how I’ve managed to live so long into the twenty-first century without being told that the Physical Book is dead and we have killed it.
As a matter of fact, I have the Kindle app on all my devices, and I do read e-books from time to time. Whenever I take an interest in a new book and gather from online research that the physical edition is poorly designed or made, I opt for the e-book. I’m aware of the technology’s advantages both to readers and authors. From a reader’s perspective, e-books can be obtained quickly and carried everywhere, taking up no discernible space. The type size can be increased, the background color changed, and a limited number of other word processor-style adjustments are possible.
Even so, I find the form of digital books disappointing at this juncture, a fact I explain in more detail here: “The Form of Digital Books.” The fact is, I rarely need to read 1,000 books at once, having them all in my pocket hasn’t proven much of an advantage. Choosing a volume to carry and sticking with it has helped me finish a number of rewarding books I wouldn’t otherwise have persevered with. Also, when a physical book is well-designed and well-produced, the reading experience is more satisfying to me than reading the same book digitally. That’s not a condemnation of e-books, or a jeremiad against all things new. I’m just saying that, in my experience, the book is still better technology than the e-book for many applications. And if taking notes by hand is better for your brain than tapping them out on a computer, I can’t help wondering if the same is true about reading.
In addition to being a reader, I am an author. E-books are a godsend for my kind in many ways. They’ve fueled an explosion in readership, and at least in theory authors can earn more money on e-books than physical ones (a fact that has as much to do with the byzantine ways of publishing as with the difference in production cost between physical and digital books). The fact is, if you’ve read my books — and I hope you have — you probably did so on an e-reader. My e-book sales far surpass the sale of my physical books. Believe me, I’m grateful.
The books we want to hold in our hand, though, are the ones we really cherish, either because of the beauty of their form, or because of their content. I’d like to think I have readers who, having read my books in digital form, want to have them in the more tangible physical form, too. That’s how I behave as a reader: the books in the cloud don’t occupy the same prominence in my life (or for that matter, thought) as the ones in the room next to me, or the ones in my hand. Something about their physicality, their embodiment, makes them more real. They don’t go away when the power switches off.
I’m at peace with the notion that printed books are going the way of vinyl albums. They will become the exclusive domain of purists, appreciated more as fetish objects than as a practical means of conveying information. That doesn’t diminish my appreciation of them at all. And it doesn’t dampen my desire, when the circumstances are right, to travel with a finite number of heavy, printed books instead of the more portable and infinite digital alternatives.