On Thursday May 27, the Oak Park Library hosted a “Petting Zoo” for e-readers and it was highly entertaining and very informative. I was only aware of the Kindle and Nook, but there are other e-readers such as Sony and Kobo that were available to try out and ask questions about. They all have similar drawbacks—too many buttons and steps to getting to the manuscript for a techno-dinosaur like myself. However, I learned to use a laptop, so I imagine that I can learn to use an e-Reader as long as I’m armed with the instruction manual and a mouth full of profanity.
They aren’t cheap. They cost less than they did a few years ago, but $130 to $190 is still a chunk of change and can buy you about 6 new hard back titles, 10 new paperback titles or a box of used books.
And it’s not as though you have the books, you still have to buy and download the books you want. Or wait—you can download them for free from the library. River Forest library even has the e-readers for loan, but only to River Forest residents.
I thought that they made a lot of sense for college textbooks. You know, those heavy, ridiculously expensive tomes that students are required to buy and to which the professor occasionally refers, especially if he or she is a contributing editor. But then I talked to one of the salesmen from Best Buy, which was showcasing the newest versions of Nook. He’s in college now and told me that his text books STILL cost $250 each and that they can’t be recycled. There’s no such thing as a used e-book.
He liked it because he had everything at his fingertips and didn’t have to lug a lot of books around, but I am still in sticker shock that despite not having the cost of paper printing and publishing, the textbook world is still gouging students. In fact, they’re gouging them more because students can’t sell their books back. Granted, selling back a whole semester’s worth of books nets you almost enough money for pizza and a beer, still, it’s something.
Nearly every author I’ve interviewed for this blog has resisted the lure of e-readers. Some of them, like Roy Blount, actually own an e-reader, but they unanimously feel that the aesthetic experience of reading is enhanced by paper. Some readers might be surprised to think about the delivery system of the words as an aesthetic experience. To them, it’s the words, illustrations and the meaning they bring to them that creates the esthetic, not how they get them.
But I’m on the fence. I get the convenience of an e-Reader for travel. My suitcase would be several pounds lighter without all the books I drag along. I get the ease of buying them over the web or borrowing them through the library without ever having to leave my house. I understand the gadget envy that comes with my friends having technology that I don’t understand. But the bottom line is I still haven’t bought one.
I think about the sea change that e-books will cause. No more bookstores? No more libraries? Homeless people need not apply because you have to have access to a power source to acquire and use the technology? No more reading on the beach because the glare makes them unusable in the sunlight. Forget taking them near water because that will short them out. But we will have encyclopedias at our fingertips, as well as dictionaries and other reference material. We’ll be able to get that book that was just reviewed in the Times before we forget the title.
But I can’t help thinking that some critical connection to the author is going to be lost and that books will become disposable in ways that they weren’t before. We may have easier access to deathless prose, but we’re also going to be less likely to keep it. We’re never going to find the electronic equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that just might be the biggest loss of all.