Monday, September 27, 2010

The Intimate Community of Paper: The eReader Will Not Make Friends for You

I haven't yet gotten an eReader, which seems strange when you consider how much I love to read. And it's not like I'm some kind of Luddite-- I carry my iPod everywhere, download about 14 hours of podcasts per week, and obsessively check my smartphone like everyone else. It's certainly not that I don't like the things in terms of user interface; clearly the leading brands do their job.

I realized I could use an eReader a few months ago when my wife and I were at an all-weekend event at a nearby school. I realized I'd like to take some notes on Little Women but didn't have a copy. If I had had an eReader with an Internet connection, I could have simply downloaded the book for anywhere from zero to ten dollars. So that's nice.

Also, I travel a lot, and I carry three or four books when I do, and having an eReader would mean that I could spare myself the extra space taken up by Relentless and Under the Dome. Can fit a whole extra pair of Size 13 shoes, right there.

And yet, I have not gotten an eReader, for two reasons:

First and not to be dismissed, I am cheap. When it comes to books, I do buy new books from time to time, probably a few a month, but mainly I borrow and buy used. I like libraries because they are free, and I like charity resale shops because, usually, I can walk out with a yard of paperbacks for 25 cents apiece and hardbacks for 50 cents, and I'm set. I got my daughter Ella Enchanted for 25 cents at the outreach center. If I switch to an eReader, and if the world follows, forget all this. Assuming it's in a Kindle version, Ella Enchanted will be $10, maybe $8. That's good for Gail Levine, who makes money she might have missed before. But would I buy it, pick it up randomly? How would I give it to my daughter? Loan her my Kindle? Get her her own Kindle? Another couple hundred dollars. If most of what I read is free or 25 cents, at what point, other than bulk, does the Kindle make itself valuable to me. Clearly from an economic perspective I am not an ideal candidate. I am too cheap and contented with my options.

But second, I mourn for the community of paper. In Italy and Spain, in France and England, I made friends based on what people were reading. I notice you're reading The Stand. When I read that I couldn't put it down. I've forgotten how good it was. Check this out, this is Mind Hacks. My friend loaned it to me. We brandished books, and engaged people in conversation. Do you understand? We were alone, and we made friends this way. We carried paper, books, as means of identifying ourselves. We got off the trains having met new people, found new adventures. You didn't have to peer over someone's shoulder, the book jacket called out from their arms.

The eReader will close that world off. It is an enrichment of the world of you, and outside, you are surrounded by concrete. You stare at a blank, beige slate, unadorned and unlabeled, sealed off from the person sitting across from you, a person that ten years ago might have become your best friend.

The eReader is a great blessing. It will allow the proliferation of lost and out-of-print works and it will enable us to read more than we could ever desire. But it will not come cheap, and the greatest cost will be the texture of life that we will lose when we lose the intimate community of paper.


  1. I'm big on eReaders, but I've thought about the second item you mentioned too. Right now I can look at what people around me are reading and if it looks good, I can download a sample and start reading it too. So I like that. But when everyone has an eReader, I won't know if they are reading the Stand or playing Angry Birds.

  2. Well, and also it's an unfair straw man, if I may say so about my own rant... people will *always* find ways of asking one another what they're reading!

  3. Hi Jason,
    One good point for e-books and their cost: Many libraries around the country have e-book access and you can check out a book electronically. Not owning an e-book, I don't know the details but I have a good friend who reads the freebies.

    I thought I'd hate having to copyedit electronically (how would I ever tell the difference between a comma and a period!), but I've become a convert. The search feature is indispensable and spell check is my friend. (The search feature also works on e-books, which is great if you're doing research.)