A year ago, my take on e-readers would have echoed what bibliophiles and book industry people have been saying since the devices hit the market and rocked their business model. “E-books are killing print!” “I like the feel of a real book in my hand.” “I’ll never own a Kindle.” And most tellingly: “That’s not a ‘real’ book.” Now, I have a confession to make. I’m a convert. I prefer reading on my Kindle.
Ok, before you break out the pitchforks and light up the bonfire, let me explain. I was once one of you! I hated the idea of an e-reader. I love the smell of books. I own a LOT of books—like too many. We do not have enough shelf space for the physical books we own. I have to create double rows on each shelf, plus do some stacking. Then, my boyfriend bought me a Kindle for Christmas (so you can blame him!). I decided to try it. And guess what? It’s kind of great.
I think the reason that an e-reader works so well for me has a lot to do with where and when I read. I live in New York City and do 90% of my reading during my morning and evening commute on the subway. It’s the quietest part of my day, when I have 30-45 minutes of uninterrupted time to myself. As long as you can tune out ambient noise (which I can) it’s a perfect reading space. But if you think about it, there are a couple of qualities inherent to physical books that make them not ideal for commuter reading.
First, I have to carry said book around in my bag, all day. Books are heavy. And bulky. Especially hardcover ones. They take up a lot of space. Space that is needed for umbrellas and wallets and breakfast and two pairs of glasses (sun and regular).
Aside from the carrying issue, there’s the actual challenge of reading a book on a subway—which is in motion. A seat on the subway is a privilege, not a right, so much of your reading may be done while standing and holding on. When it’s time to turn the page, there’s a precarious moment where you’re like, “Do I think the subway driver is going to slam on the brakes or hit a turn in the next three seconds?” Then you go for it, but it’s always awkward and sometimes catastrophic (sorry that lady I fell on that one time!).
E-readers eliminate all of these problems. They are light and slim, so they add next to no weight or bulk to my bag. And by design they are meant to be read one-handed. No more precarious moments or accidental neighbor bumps.
Here’s when I really knew that I was a Kindle convert though: David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors, so when his new book, The Bone Clocks, was released, I ran up to The Strand to see if I could score a signed copy. Luck was with me and I came away with a beautiful new signed hardcover. Now the problem of reading it surfaced. In addition to the usual struggles with subway reading, I also worried that my pretty signed copy would be damaged. My purse is not exactly a pristine, sterile environment. All of the following substances have at one time ruined something or other in my bag: water, gum, melted lipstick, uncapped pen, exploded yogurt. I really, really didn’t want that happening to this book.
Can you see where this is going? Yep—I bought the digital copy too. To read. It’s easier. It’s better. I said it.
However you feel about e-books, I think it’s about time that we stopped treating them as second-class literature or the downfall of publishing. Reading is reading. I actually read more now with my Kindle than I did when I read only physical books. Part of it is the lower price point of e-books, which I recognize has its own challenges for publishers. Publishing is going through the struggle we saw with the music industry a little over a decade ago (man I’m getting old) when mp3s changed how we buy music. E-books have changed how I buy books: I buy more. That’s a good thing. There’s still a way to go to find the right balance but this doesn’t have to be a doomsday.
I also recognize that I’m now coming to this from the consumer side of the equation. I worked in editorial at a major book publisher for three years, so I’m familiar with the challenges of e-books. I know that most publishers need to totally rethink the way they budget and spend on a project in order to make e-books profitable. I get their concerns. I get that the physical book-selling industry is threatened by this new technology. I don’t want bookstores to go away. I have a very, very troubled relationship with Amazon and their business practices. I know there is a lot more to the story. But from the position of a reader, here’s what I just wanted to say: I was wrong about e-books. There is nothing inherently bad with the concept. When you are finished reading one, you have still read a book and it gives you the same satisfaction that turning a paper page does. The vehicle doesn’t matter—the story does.
Now I’m going to go read The Bone Clocks.