I was lightly accused, in a recent discussion on the Kindle Boards, of “railing against” ebooks when I posted the following message:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ebooks, the death of the print book, etc., and after reading yet another such article (on my computer, ironically) I immediately posted this facebook status:

[I]will not give up on print. Say what you will about the unstoppable advancement of technology – the experience of reading a book v. the experience of reading an ebook cannot be compared to anything else but newspaper articles, and articles take an average of maybe 10 minutes to read. I simply don’t see people giving up their books, or the book experience.

[My actual entry goes on, but it isn’t interesting enough to include here. For the full, and very enlightening, thread of replies, visit the discussion here.]

Most of the responses were illuminating. Educational. Helpful. A couple were Kindle-defensive, even though I’d said nothing negative about e-readers. My books are available on Kindle and Smashwords – how could I possibly have anything bad to say about devices that allow people to read them, and so inexpensively (minus the cost of the e-reader itself)? I couldn’t. I don’t.

I understand the appeal of Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Sony Readers, and whatever else is out there. I’m certainly not anti-technology, especially when the technology in question does all the cool things the friendly Kindle readers who responded to my post on the Kindle boards let me know e-readers can do:

1. highlight passages

2. bookmark pages

3. change font sizes (I have to admit I like this one)

4. carry your whole library in one light container and choose from among hundreds of books while waiting for a bus, say, rather than having to keep reading the one you’re carrying in your bag – and you hate the one in your bag

5. buy individual books very, very, very inexpensively (particularly if they’re released by indie authors; otherwise, the Kindle edition is likely to cost just a bit less than – and sometimes more than – the paperback. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, for example, costs $9.60 for the Kindle edition, and $9.99 for the mass market paperback)

6. discover several new (usually indie) authors easily due to their e-books’ low prices and e-vailability (versus their nonexistence in most big-time – or small-time – bookstores)

7. move (the household, that is) from place to place without having boxes of books to lug with you (which is somewhat, but not entirely, similar to #4)

8. look up words and references within the very “book” you’re reading by touching the screen (pretty cool, I have to admit)

9. hold them comfortably, as they’re light and thin (and not unwieldy and awkward like hardcovers or thick paperbacks – think The Executioner’s Song or Harlot’s Ghost – or any other fat Mailer novel)

10. read without getting ink on your fingers (okay, this is not an “apparently” – this is obviously hard fact)

And all of that sounds great.


However, I know I won’t be dumping out my change jar and rolling dimes and quarters to buy a Sony Reader, a Nook,  a Kindle, or a whatever-else-comes-next.

When it comes to e-readers, I like the idea of the immediacy, the volume, the ease. The “Ooh – gadget!” factor and the touch-pad screen.

But I don’t want it, because I’m like everyone else. If I have this new excuse to move away from the long list of  things that have lost their meaningful place in our everydays–the VHS tapes, the record albums, and even the CDs–I will.

And I don’t want to be tempted.

When I was a teenager, we were still buying records. I only had five, but I had them. My dad had them, too. Lined up side-by-side on the shelf under his turntable, the band and singer-songwriter names in small font on the edges. When I wanted to listen to something, I would sit on the floor and flip through the covers until I found something I liked. When I was a little bit older and CDs were mainstream but records hadn’t yet been completely phased out, I flipped through the corner-worn record jackets stuffed tight in the wall-cubby of my new boyfriend’s apartment. What did he like? Who did he listen to? Who was he?

We do the same with books. We walk into the home of a new friend, a new lover, and one of the first things we scan is the bookshelf. What are you reading? Who do you like? Who are you?

The only thing we might notice before that is the art on the walls, but wall-art is intentional. It’s selected carefully, matched to our walls or rugs or living room furniture or personality – because it will be there, hanging at eye-level and on immediate display, for years.

We don’t put the same kind of thought into bringing home books. We walk into a bookstore, pick up a pretty cover, read the back, and buy it. When we’re finished with it, we slide it onto the shelf between a book on houseplants and a collection of short stories we picked up at another store some years ago.

And we take for granted – more often than not – the utter richness of the experience of reading a book. The simplest of activities, yes, but one that appeals to every one of our senses, even if only subtly, peripherally. The art of the cover draws us first, and its connection to the time of its publication is as telling as the subject matter, the details, of the words inside. Living history, it changes with each new printing and offers us, when we’re lucky enough to find a decades-old copy in a used book store, a tangible bit of the past we can take home with us. We open the cover and are intrigued by who may have owned it before and run a finger over the name written in cursive on the inside cover, then wonder what might have happened to her. Who she was, this woman who for some reason included the year beside her name, and where she lived, how her book found its way to the store.

When we fold back the paperback cover, it is slick and stiff with newness or soft and worn like old, time-rubbed money. The pages are white or they’re tanned by dust and years, flat and thin or grainy, bumpy, and thick – almost cringe-inducing, as when tracing a finger along an oxidized car hood – and the pages’ edges are the color of dandelion smear.

We bookmark our places with old business cards, Christmas ribbons, envelopes, or shopping receipts, and  years after reading, we may find a memory tucked between pages 7 and 8. We curl down corners marking sex-hot scenes and glide ballpoint lines under passages we want to recall. We slide our fingers over the words we love, tear out the pages that piss us off, and hurl incomprehensible narrative across the room. Books are our face-umbrellas in bright sunlight, fans in the heat, levelers of uneven tables, and warm decoration in an otherwise nondescript room. They are our age, they are our parents’ age, they are our grandparents’ age. When we turn the pages, we’re touching time.

I don’t want to be tempted away.

Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. I hear you, and even embrace much of that myself. But those aesthetic reasons just don’t outweigh a) the desire to declutter my home; and b) the desire to save money going forward.

    A is huge in my life. I want to own as few things as humanly possible. I have for a long time now. Doing so makes me happier than the tactile experience of fondling printed books.

    Your mileage, of course, may and does vary.

  2. Wonderful essay, and I agree with almost everything you said.

    Part of the reason I think POD is such a wonderful technology lies in the idea that you can produce physical books — lovingly designed and edited physical books — for whatever market exists for them, for however long it exists. This stands in stark contrast to my day job, where the rapid disappearance of print newspaper readers has a foreboding influence on my life. Fewer readers equals fewer reasons to produce a print newspaper, which equals less ad revenue, which means a loss of jobs.

    I feel no similar threat from e-books. I’m an author. Authors are needed for books, no matter the delivery method. If I ran a publishing house, I might be quaking in my boots, but as an author, I’m not even sweating the possible disappearance of the big publishers. Something will spring up in their place, or I’ll be able to go to readers directly. The demand for what I do hasn’t diminished at all — and, in fact, you could argue that it has increased. This makes me happy.

    Now, when I was a kid and I dreamed of writing books, I imagined these tomes in a physical form. I have deep emotional attachments to the books on my shelves. I love the arrival of a fresh box of books for a signing. If these things go away, I’ll miss them. But I’ll be okay. Because I’ll still get to write them.

  3. I do love ebooks, but I also love the traditional book. Like you, I walk into someone’s home and immediately look over what they have on their bookshelf. A friend posted pictures of her kids on facebook and I was more excited by the full bookshelf in the background! I go into any thrift store and make a b-line for the books just because I have such a love affair with books!

    No matter how many ebooks I get, I’ll always have plenty of traditional books and bookshelves in my home as well.

  4. Too late for me. I already jumped ship from print to the Kindle, and after seeing the Marvel Comics app for the iPad, it’s only a matter of time …

  5. I picked up a Sony eReader in March, and I haven’t pulled a real book off the shelf since. But here is the most interesting thing I’ve noticed: I read twice as much as I used to. It’s small, holds many titles, AND I’m comfortable carrying it to places I would never have taken a book. (Oddly, it seems less geeky than lugging a book around.)

    I assume we all can see the benefits of people reading more, so anything that makes it easier to consume books is a good thing, right?

    I also had the opportunity to ‘touch’ an iPad this weekend, and I have to say that I was not prepared for the “wow” factor. This device changes everything in my opinion. The need for paper just disappears, especially for thick heavy non-interactive text books and children’s books. The electronic medium has reached a point where it is just better suited than paper to deliver the content. Think chisel/hammer/stone to paper to iPad, and you get a sense of what I felt when I actually had one in my hands.

  6. I haven’t played with an iPad, yet, but I have played with an iPhone – which looks like a tiny iPad, really. It’s fun. A lot of fun. And very cool.

    I still like books better. 😉 It’s not about practicality. In fact, it’s about anything BUT practicality.

  7. I’ve always envisioned having a house with library. Wall to wall books, even needing a ladder to reach the musty tomes up top. Lately I have been getting books on my iPad for the convenience factor. If I really like the book, I’l buy it on both! Might as well support the author.

  8. […] let me turn you over for a moment to a real writer, Kristen Tsetsi, who captured these feelings beautifully in a recent post on her blog, “From a …: [W]hen we’re lucky enough to find a decades-old copy in a used book store, a tangible bit of the […]

  9. I completely understand Ms. Tsetsi but I don’t see e-books completely replacing printed books, not by a long shot. For many reason, e.g the library, no matter how advance technology gets nothing will replace getting a free book for an allotted period of time. Educational text books, if you ever tried to learn from an online or e-textbook it gives you a headache ,its practically foolish to not buy a printed text book if its required. Prison systems, sadly sending prisoners e-books isn’t feasible,print only. Global economy, just because the west can afford kindles and eReaders doesn’t mean a family in India can,also i’ve only seen one book that is eReader only and its not selling well. But more importantly e-books are not necessary, this type of book reading is still in the category of luxury. So their is still hope for printed books so cheer up!


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