MichaelRosenwaldAlbert Einstein supposedly nailed down a good definition of “insanity.” It’s “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

That fits Washington Post staff writer Michael S. Rosenwald, with one notable exception. He almost always ends up with the same results—mostly negative publicity about e-books—and I don’t think he minds.

Rosenwald’s latest gem is Where are the books? Libraries under fire as they shift from print to digital.

The really weird thing is that Rosenwald is a confessed iPad and Kindle owner who is probably smarter than his persona in certain Post articles. But the truth mustn’t get in the way of a good headline, right?

First off, Michael, as you may or may not know, an e-book is a real book. Perhaps you or your headline writer simply picked up the sentiments of some anti-e-bookers you quoted.

Go to Dictionary.com, and definition 2 of “book” is “a work of fiction or nonfiction in an electronic format: Your child can listen or read the book online.” Lest you dismiss this information because it’s, ugh, online, we’ll consider the basics here. Cover? Check, even if it’s a digital image. Words? Check. Sentences? Check. Paragraphs? Check. Pages? Check. Chapters? Check. Of course, some e-books might be just incoherent patches of odds and ends, but zillions of paper books are like that, too. E-books not real books? It’s a little like Donald Trump saying that Barack Obama, rather than being a “real” American, was born in Kenya. Oh, the fun of marginalization!

In the text of the actual article on e-books and libraries, you write: “One survey of readers 18 to over 68 found that just 5 percent of millennials read only e-books. Twenty-one percent of the millennials said they read more hard copy than e-books, and 34 percent reported that they only read print.

“However, some 26 percent of millennials did say they read about the same amount of print and e-books, which librarians take as a sign that they are headed in the right direction. Library officials also point to studies showing that children enjoy reading e-books and that, in some cases, the technology increases excitement about books.”

Michael, I’m at least grateful for the “however” paragraph (even if you seem to be saying, “Oh, librarians are going by just 26 percent”).

But what’s the point of earlier mentioning the “survey of readers 18 to over 68” and zeroing in on the “just 5 percent” statistic for the number of E-only millennials? It is meaningless when many e-book fans may simply have stashed away a hefty collection of paper books and may even be reading them. My late father’s print library, packed with titles ranging from Da Vinci notebooks to the memoirs of New Deal politicians, is still with me for sentimental reasons. And I am not above revisting some titles there or in my own paper collection.  I’m not a millennial. But the same idea would apply. Stories and ideas above format, please!

Also, consider that even some recent books are available only on paper. So how else could even the most rabid e-fan read them? Ditto for books that aren’t immediately available on pulped wood.

Moving on, let’s analyze Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right. So millennials are forever doomed to hate the e-books? Significantly, you don’t explore the abysmal state of e-book literacy among people of all ages, including the young. Educate them about the technology—the press and many others gets a big, fat Fail—and more will come aboard. Although I’ve made this point before, it bears repeating. How many human e-book readers know, for example, how to read with white letters against a dark background if there are glare issues? The most popular software typically allows such adjustments. Or how about using all-bold text and cranking down the backlight or frontlight?  What’s more, you can optimize the font and margins for yourself. Sounds basic. But so many people don’t even do the obvious.

Another issue is that navigating an e-book is different from the standard exercise in page flipping. Say, you’re reading a Russian novel with a city-sized cast of characters with unpronounceable names. Then, if your software is good, you can search for characters’ names and see snippets of text associated with them. Presto! You can keep up with them and the book more easily.

You can also learn how to make the best use of navigational bars showing where you are in the book. In addition, with some titles, you can use Amazon’s X-Ray feature or the equivalent to get a general feel for who’s who and a number of other matters.

Even when you write about choosing an e-reader for the beach, you pander when you can to the pulped-wood die-hards: “I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I will: You might be able to continue reading from a printed book that accidentally takes a dip in the ocean, but a waterlogged e-reader is as unusable as an empty tube of suntan oil.” No mention of a plastic bag, eh, or other protection? Since 2012, when you wrote the article, beach-proofing is easier than ever. I own not just a waterproof Kobo Aura H2O but also a Kindle Paperwhite inside a Redpepper case.

You conclude: “Last tip: Reading on the couch is a lot more comfortable than reading on sand.” Translation: Why bother?

Detail: Although gung ho on E, I actually would warn libraries against replacing paper books with e-books unless they first address digital divide issues. What good are e-books to people without the knowledge and resources to enjoy them, especially hardware with which they feel comfortable? Also, some kinds of books just work out better on paper right now—for example, art books and some kinds of kids’ books. Likewise I am concerned about excessive spending in certain cases on cutting-edge tech when libraries can’t even afford the basics.

Simply put, despite my distaste for the frequent e-bashing in Michael Rosenwald’s writings, I myself am happy to consider the nuances. I hope he’ll do more of the same in the future. Words in major publications such as the Washington Post, like it or not, often have consequences. I’ve spent years pushing for well-stocked national digital libraries so we can enjoy the efficiencies of e-books in a country where public libraries can spend just $4 per capita on content of all kinds. The real obstacle isn’t technical—it’s human. Rosenwald does not help by constantly reinforcing fears and prejudices against e-books and omitting mentions of, say, ergonomic solutions. That he works for a Bezos-owned paper is absolutely surreal.

Houskeeping: TeleRead Links will not appear today. Matters related to my wife’s health unavoidably came first.


  1. Are ebooks “real” books? It depends on one’s definition of real. I think of ebooks as ephemeral books — I have them as long as I can gain access to them. For example, when B&N stopped permitting downloading, I became wholly subject to the problem of whether B&N stays in business (have we so soon forgotten the Fictionwise and the Sony problems that resulted in many ebookers losing their leased libraries?).

    eBooks have many advantages and a significant number of disadvantages, as do print books. But after years of buying ebooks, I have stopped except for the occasional ebook I buy at Smashwords because I don’t really own or have possession of the ebooks, unlike with a print book. (And the price of many ebooks for the privilege of leasing and not owning is quite high, not, in my view, significantly less than the cost of the print book and oft times more expensive than a print copy.)

    I haven’t stopped reading or buying books; I just buy print instead (so far in July, I have spent nearly $200 on print books and have another about $250 worth on order; years ago, at least a third to a half of that sum would have been spent on ebooks but not any longer).

    • @Richard, I consider ebooks to be less ephemeral than paper. I have not forgotten Fictionwise, which is why I download and backup to Dropbox all my ebook purchases. If my house were ever destroyed, to “replace” my library, all I would need to replace would be my Kindle, assuming it wasn’t with me at the time of the accident.

      Depending on how you look at it, neither is inherently more “permanent” than the other.

  2. @Richard Adin: Nice hearing from you, as always. Remember—this is especially about e-books in a library context. Do you expect to own your library e-books for real? What’s more, as has been noted, there are business models granting libraries permanent use.

    As for books you buy, yes, there is the DRM issue. The DMCA prohibits stripping of “protection,” even if that leaves you at the mercy of the companies providing this rather unwelcome technology. As we know, however, theory and practice can differ, and certain well-known e-book sites are pointing to links with de-DRMing instructions. TeleRead will not. But we can say that, so far, the U.S. government does not seem to be prosecuting e-bookers who strip DRM just for their personal use. I hope that this never happens. But if it does, then maybe at last the public will wake up about the iniquity of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision.

    Even now, however, just as Juli says, e-books are less ephemeral than p-books in some important ways.

  3. The Wash Po buried the lead — 66% of readers read ebooks, at least part of the time.

    That doesn’t sound like an industry segment that is going to fade away.

    And as more and more cheap ebook capable devices (not-entirely-crappy Android tablets can be found for $35 these days), that percentage will undoubtedly go higher and the % of books being read on a screen vs. a printed page will also increase.

  4. What is a book? A lots of symbols that we call information on some sort of support like paper, papyrus, e-ink between glass, light under glass, and why not stone. Real book ? You read on whatever you like it. Real book doesn’t really exist. Thoughts exist and are expression of a person somewhere on earth who are kind enough to share with everyone. And the reader use his preferred tool.

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