Confessions of a Closeted eBook Lover
I made a realization after a friend insisted I read Rivers of London AKA Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch. She lent me her paperback copy, and after a few months of forgetfulness, I finally sat down to read it one evening. The story hooked me instantly, and I was keen on spending some time with it.
There was just one problem: I didn’t want to read the physical, ink and paper book. I wanted the eBook.
This was an incredibly difficult internal confession. I’ve always been a proponent of analog books—their smell of ink and pulp, the feel of the paper on your fingers, how nice they look on a shelf. But I couldn’t deny this desire to set aside the old standard and seek out a digital copy.
How did this happen?
The answer was fairly simple, as it turns out, but I had to mentally travel back in time and review the last several months to finally settle the matter and come to terms with this revelation:
I preferred eBooks to physical books.
(Well, that statement’s a little glib. The matter’s a bit more complex than that, and I still prefer physical books in certain circumstances.)
How It Happened
So, I’ll get to the matter of the parenthesized statement in a bit, but first let’s discuss how my perspective shifted from “I’ll read an eBook if it’s the only thing available or it’s more convenient to do so,” to “I prefer an eBook in most cases, save a few exceptions.”
This change of heart, it’s all because of LitReactor, my favorite lit-mags, discounted eBook sales, and the public library.
As you probably well know, we do a little thing called Bookshots here, whereby we give you fun-sized book reviews of new and upcoming releases. Most of the time, these titles are sent to reviewers in eBook format, which makes total sense for the publishers, as it is a low-cost alternative to shipping out physical books. Thus, since we started Bookshots back in 2013, I’ve had my nose buried in my iPad at least once a month.
Except, there’s also the matter of the magazines I currently subscribe to, Nightmare, Shimmer, and Apex, all of which now publish their titles in digital format. There are printed options for all three magazines, but it’s way more convenient to have the digital copies emailed to me (and less costly on my finances). The first two put out a magazine every month, while the last publishes bi-monthly. So that’s two to three more titles that require reading via my iPad rather than a physical book.
Now, as it turned out, there were several books I’d been wanting to read that I was either able to pick up at a drastically reduced price via Amazon, or completely free through my public library’s partnership with said company. Two examples: Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters (I paid $1.99 for this one), and Josh Malerman’s Bird Box (borrowed from the library). I read these novels back to back, in between my Bookshots selections for that particular month (February 2015, and I did two reviews then, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Dark Screams: Volume Two) as well as an issue of Nightmare and Apex (Shimmer did not publish that month). I followed that with two more eBooks (Bones and All by Camille DeAngelis and another issue of Apex) before finally picking up Rivers of London. Moreover, I’d only read one physical book in January.
So in total, that’s pretty much two full months populated predominately by digital reading material before I jumped into my friend’s book.
The question arises here: was it simply over-exposure to a particular medium that caused my shift in preference? In other words, was it merely my brain having trouble adjusting to a paper page after so much time staring at a backlit screen?
Turns out…not so much.
True, the ratio of eBooks to physical books in a two month time span was decidedly imbalanced, but my desire to continue reading in the former format was not simply a matter of adjustment to the medium itself. It also had much to do with the features said medium offers.
In the first place, I have poor eyesight—I dare say, even abysmal eyesight. Seriously, even when I pay more money for the new, super-thin glass, my lenses still stick out on either side of the frame. My friends get instant headaches if they try my glasses on. Because of this, lighting conditions have to be perfect in order for me to read something printed with ink on paper.
I mentioned earlier that I began reading Rivers of London at night, so that’s strike one right there: no matter what, my vision worsens when it’s dark out, so daylight plays a crucial role in my ability to sit comfortably for a large chunk of time and devour a book. The darker it is outside, the better the light has to be inside.
Which leads to strike two: even with carefully positioned lamps, the lighting in my apartment kinda sucks. I have a pretty decent set-up in my office, but the problem with that is, I really hate to cloister myself off like that when I’m reading. I prefer to be in the living room or my fiancé’s study. She and I don’t get to spend much time together given our schedules, so it’s nice to be in the same room with her, even if we’re both just sitting and reading. She could hang with me in the office, but other than my chair, there really isn’t a decent place to sit, and in general the area is designed for work, not play.
Okay, so two strikes against physical books isn't that significant. I mean in baseball, the rule is three strikes and you're out, yeah? So the old analogs are still in the game.
Even Deeper Implications
I would move away from the baseball/strikes analogy, because we're about to go above three here, and remember my aim is not to discount physical books completely, but rather to demonstrate a preference shift. But for the sake of brief continuity, we’ll call this next one strike three: highlighting and notes. See, I have this thing about writing in physical books—I kinda hate doing it. It just feels like I’m marring this piece of artwork by doing so. Maybe not so much with a cheapo trade paperback, but only then will I mark up the pages with a light mechanical pencil, nothing more.
I know, this is my hang-up. This isn’t a problem of physical books inherently, as other people will no doubt highlight and mark-up their analogs with abandon. I’ll personally never understand doing such a thing, but again, that’s just me. But I think everyone will agree that you definitely shouldn’t mark-up a book someone has lent you, and this combined with my personal distaste for writing in physical books was the dilemma I found myself in with Rivers of London.
With eBooks however, I can highlight and note-take all I want. Being a digital landscape, I just don’t have the same qualms about “damaging” it as I do with their analog counterparts. Perhaps it’s because eBooks are nothing more than codes and numbers and text woven into a readable document, and not a tangible item crafted from raw materials.
Whatever it is, I not only love the fact I can mark-up an eBook as much as I like, but also that I can view and search my notes and highlighted sections within their own database, making it so much easier to, say, determine my favorite sentence for a Bookshots review, or simply pour back over my thoughts on a novel to better sort out in my mind what the text was all about. Because of this feature, I’m better equipped to get closer to a book and understand its mechanics, analyze it, deconstruct it and put it back together again without spending exorbitant amounts of time thumbing through pages.
The last two strikes I have to discuss I’ll cover briefly:
Portability—Even though I’m still “lugging” around a third-generation iPad, as hefty as it is compared to its newer brethren, it’s still not nearly as heavy as a hardback copy of Stephen King’s The Stand or George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. I’ve mentioned in previous columns that I have issues with my back, so carrying around a lighter load is a life-saver. Plus, because I can store multiple books within one device, I’m never left stranded without something to read.
Syncing between devices—Both the Kindle and iBooks apps keep track of my place and highlights within a given book, meaning that if I find myself in a position where reading my iPad would be inconvenient—for example, waiting in line at the Walgreens pharmacy (Dante’s forgotten level of Hell)—or if I happen not to have my iPad on me, I can still keep up with my current book by reading on my iPhone. The smaller screen isn’t ideal, but it does the trick. Having the ability to literally read a book whenever I find the time do so, no matter where I am, has drastically increased how many books I can devour in a month. I’ve never in my entire life been this productive reading-wise.
If It’s In A Word or In a Look, You Can’t Get Rid of Physical Books
Yes, just like the titular monster from Jennifer Kent’s amazing film The Babadook, despite all the downsides listed above, I just can’t give up on the old standards. As much as I’m in love with eBooks right now, I know I’ll never be a full convert to the digital sphere. Printed books have one major advantage to eBooks—they smell amazing. Now, don’t tell me you’ve never taken a deep whiff of a newly cracked spine and gotten a little high off it.
Moreover, my inability to mark-up the pages—listed as a downside above—is, perversely, also an upside to physical books, relating to their tangibility and ability to stimulate the senses. They not only smell great, they feel great in the hands. Touching the pages, you’re struck with a simultaneous roughness and smoothness. You get that soothing rustle every time you turn a page. Reading a physical book is altogether a much more pleasing and evocative experience, and unless someone combines digital book reading with virtual reality technology (it could happen), eBooks will never truly match physical books in this way.
Now, as far as highlighting and note-taking goes, I’ve already found an alternative to writing directly on the page. I create a notebook in Evernote on my iPhone, snap a photo of the page with the text I want to highlight (the automatic camera in said app is nothing short of amazing), then use the annotate feature to underline or bracket the quote in question. I can also add a text box to the photo, or just type out my thoughts below the photo. It’s a few extra steps, but it effectively lets me highlight and note-take without marring the pages. Which especially comes in handy when a friend lets me borrow her book.
Now, you may be asking: why didn’t you use Evernote for Rivers of London, the book your friend lent you that started this whole eBook revelation?
There’s a simple answer to that. Remember that I also said my preference for eBooks was circumstantial? In the case of Rivers of London, the circumstances were one hundred percent aligned in an eBook’s favor. I already stated it had been a heavy reading month prior to me picking up my friend’s book, and I had another heavy month ahead of me. If I was going to read Aaronovitch’s novel—as I’d been saying for months and months that I would—I needed to read it fast. And the best way to do that was to ensure I always had the book on me, so I could pick it up at odd times throughout the day, even if only for five minutes or so. And the most convenient way to do that, of course, was via an eBook.
Now, the fact of the matter is, in most cases I have to read books as quickly as I can, because I’m challenging myself to both get through my to-read pile and take on as much writing-based work as I can, which means potentially doing multiple reviews a month. So, right now, eBooks genuinely are the best medium for me. But given the right circumstances, I would still prefer to have a physical book in my hands, and if time (and lighting, of course) permit, I’ll go with the analog medium instead.
So there you have it. Yes, I’m an eBook lover, for sure—they’re great and I’m happy they’re so widely available. But where books are concerned, I’m no monogamist, and while the digital titles offer instant gratification, there’s long-term pleasure to be found in their analog counterparts.
Which do you prefer, eBooks or physical books, and for what reasons? Or do you swing back and forth, like I do? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.
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