Last week, as I read through the reactions to the Dorchester Publishing decision to go digital on the Smart Bitches site I was surprised at the number of comments that expressed the “I will never give up the physical book for ebooks” sentiment. I think I was particularly surprised to find this on a romance site, because it was my impression that readers of romance novels had been some of the earliest adopters of ebooks-hence Harlequin’s success as a leader in the world of digital publishing.
Then today I read an interesting post entitled “It’s the End of the Book As We Know It and I Feel Fine,“ where the author argues that the traditional model of publishing is a scarcity model (where the reader has to wait for a book they are interested in reading) and that with the immediate accessibility of ebooks, “The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.”
Once again, the comments in response to this post often focused on readers’ sadness and fear about the potential loss of “real” books–and they waxed eloquently on the feel, and smell, and scribbled margin notes of a paper-based book.
As I thought about this sort of reaction to ebooks, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a life-saver my Kindle and ebooks have been in the past year. My father has Alzheimer’s and I have been traveling to see him every other month, a trip that takes six or seven hours by plane each way. In addition, once I arrive, there is often not a lot I can do for my father but just be with him, since extended conversations are increasingly frustrating for him, as he searches for words and tries to follow my sentences. While we have good times singing along to the old classic movie musicals I bring, much of the time he is either napping, or caught up in a world I can’t understand. So I read. And sitting beside him reading, something I did throughout my childhood, make these visits bearable.
Before I got the Kindle I would pack about 5 books, and still run out before the end of the trip. Now, all I have to take is my slim, leather encased Kindle, and I never run out of books to read-since I can browse in the Kindle bookstore and download a book instantly. In addition, the Kindle fits into my purse, its battery has never failed me during the longest day of traveling, and it is good to my aging eyes.
In short, ebooks have become an incredible convenience for me when visiting my father. But four months ago I had an experience that proved the Kindle to be far more than simply convenient. My father and step-mother had both gotten very ill, and I had flown up to make arrangements for my father, who had been in the hospital with pneumonia, because my step-mother was too ill to manage on her own. I moved my father into a memory care facility, and I stayed with him (sleeping on the floor) for 4 days to help him adjust. This was an extremely difficult time, as he was confused and frightened by the swift series of events. At one point, when he was off with one of the aids and I was trying desperately not to completely fall apart from having watched him try for ten minutes to remember how to put his pants on, I just knew that what I needed was one of my “comfort” books. You know–the book that you have read and reread until it’s tattered and torn, the book that brings you back to the safety of childhood (if you had the wonderful childhood I had) or took you to the safe place where you escaped to from a none to happy childhood.
For nearly 40 years my comfort books have been the Regency romances written by Georgette Heyers. I own every one and have read them multiple times. But, my Heyers were sitting on my bookshelves thousands of miles away, and what I needed right that instant was Heyer’s book Cotillion, and within 60 seconds I had it. Yes, it wasn’t formatted all that well, and yes, it wasn’t encased in the familiar musty, falling apart paper cover I had at home. But the words and the story were there, as was the smile Heyer’s most unlikely hero, Freddy, always brings to my heart. I had my comfort, and when my father returned, I could keep that smile on my face and explain one more time where he was and that everything was ok.
Do I think that physical books are going to disappear, at least anytime soon? Absolutely not, and the sorts of negative comments about ebooks that can be found throughout the internet (forget the irony that these comments are digital themselves) make it clear that there continues to be a very loyal market for the traditional paper-based book. And, even if some of the problems with ebooks (like the ability to share books or write notes) are successfully addressed, I firmly believe paper-based books should remain available in a world where not everyone has the money or connectivity needed for ebooks, and where paper remains the safest medium for preservation, when the floppy’s, zip disks, flash drives, and electronic files we are creating can become obsolete, corrupted, and deleted, in an instant. But are paper-based books the only “real” books, and are they inherently superior to ebooks? Well I am no longer sure.
What do you think?