Tuesday, August 9, 2011

BOOKSHELVES

A few months after I acquired it, my Kindle stopped connecting to the internet. Not so bad unless I wanted to ever, you know, use it. I spent an evening searching the interwebs trying to find a fix, but was unsuccessful. So, into the drawer the Kindle went and I forgot about the whole thing.

Shortly after we moved to North Carolina, I decided I'd give Amazon a call and see if they couldn't help me out. I don't use the Kindle very much, but I figured it was stupid to just let it sit broken in a drawer while it was still under warranty. After about forty-five minutes on the phone, the helpful Amazon customer service representative told me what I already knew: the thing was broken. Amazon shipped me a new one, I sent the old one back, and all is well.

When I got the new Kindle, I decided to do something that I hadn't ever gotten around to with the old one: organize the damn thing. The Kindle allows you to organize your ebooks books by Title, Author, Most Recent First, or Collections. Previously, I'd left the Kindle on its default, which is to arrange everything by Most Recent First. For the record, this is annoying. I toyed with the idea of setting it up by Title or Author, but the screen still seemed too cluttered with all of the books and short stories I've downloaded on the home page. So by Collection it was.

I created bookstore-like categories (Classics, Science Fiction, Horror, Non-Fiction) and started dropping titles where they belonged.

Meanwhile, in the physical world (what used to be called the real world), I'd just assembled a new bookcase. Now came the time to fill it with books. Not only that, but I had to do the same with the other bookcases in the house (some upstairs, some down) since we hadn't yet unpacked any of the books we'd toted with us from Texas. For whatever reason, I ddin't like the idea of organizing the physical (real) books by category like I had the digital (fake) ones on my Kindle, so I decided to arrange them by author.

Arranging the physical books was more of a pain than arranging their digital counterparts. The floor was covered in teetering stacks. Piles for upstairs, piles for downstairs. Hardcovers, trade paperbacks, mass market paperbacks, coffee table books. I must have descended and climbed the stairs two dozen times before the whole affair was over. Then there was the challenge of getting them all to fit. Not all of the shelves are equally tall. Hardcovers had to go on the taller shelves, trade paperbacks would fit on the hardcover shelves, but the hardbacks wouldn't fit on shelves that trade paperbacks slid into nicely. Lots of shuffling was undertaken before I got everything in place.

It took me maybe five minutes to organize my Kindle; it took me hours to organize all the physical books in the house. And yet filling the bookcases was less tedious. It was actually sort of fun. It sucked to have to cart armful after armful of Stephen King novels first down the stairs, and then, when I discovered they wouldn't all fit in the downstairs bookcase, back up again. But it sure as hell beat clicking around a piece of plastic, trying to use the Kindle's obnoxiously small keypad and cursor. When shelving my physical books, I could stop and admire the cover art and graphic design of a particular volume. I could flip to a favorite story or re-read a particularly excellent first line. This type of behavior undoubtedly prolonged the process of getting the books in order, but it also kept it from getting boring.

I couldn't do any of this on the Kindle. First of all, the e-ink is in black and white (black and gray, actually). Even if it was convenient to look at the covers of my ebooks (which it is not), what would be the point? And maybe I did want to re-read a particular passage while categorizing my ebooks, but it's just too much of a pain to do so. And anyway, I never really wanted to to begin with because ebooks just aren't set up in a way that invites that sort of leisurely perusal.

Is this my long-winded way of saying that I prefer what ebook evangelists like Joe Konrath refer to as "dead tree books" over ebooks? That I prefer the cumbersome, out-dated technology of ink printed on paper and bound between boards better than I like bits of digital information downloaded to a state-of-the-art e-reader?

Yes it is.

To be sure ebooks have some nice advantages. Traveling with a Kindle is much more convenient than lugging a handful off traditional books around. If it's midnight and I want to buy a book, I can. Also, when organizing my ebook collection, I can put the same book in two places. So Bram Stoker's horror classic "Dracula" can be categorized under both Horror and Classics, a feat that would require two copies in the pesky real world.

There are other nice features to the thing, I suppose. You can change the font size and turn any book into an audio book (an audio book as read by a 1950s robot, anyway). But truthfully I've never messed with either feature much.

When reading an old-style paper and ink book, there's nothing that I miss about ebooks. The reverse is not true. I like being able to flip around a book or to open to a random page. I like that I can turn ahead to see how many pages until the next chapter break or the next story in a collection. I like the look of a well-designed book. I like the feel and smell of the paper.

The thing about ebooks is this: they are very likely the future. As more and more people own devices like Kindles, iPads, and smartphones, ebook sales will make up an ever-increasing percentage of books sold in this country. And that's fine.

But I can't help feeling like this is another example of convenience winning out over quality.People will say that it isn't the medium, it's the story that matters. And they're right. But if the story is the same ("Moby Dick" is "Moby Dick," no matter the format), then why not stick with the more pleasurable medium? For my money, that's good old-fashioned, out-dated books.

To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, physical books smell like Egyptian incense; ebooks smell like burned fuel.

2 comments:

  1. So true, and I don't even own an e-book, but nothing beats paper for me. I even refrain from buying certain things in Amazon because I like to peruse books before I buy them.

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  2. I love this. I am a young(ish) person, and I have strong negative opinions on both e-readers and smart phones. You perfectly articulated why. Yes, e-readers can be more convenient, but I am a tangible person, and I live in the physical world, and dammit, I want to be able to physically touch the pages of an actual book. This makes me scared I am fated to become a stodgy old person who refuses to change.

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