Paper books vs. e-books and the clash of bookstore cultures

Salon Magazine’s culture editor Anna North recently posted an article about how much she “hates books.” Not the collections of words—she loves reading—but the physical artifacts that have the words in them. She’s moved seven times in eight years, and has gotten tired of hauling dead tree pulp around. She’s come to love her iPad, and the ability to read e-books on it, The books she keeps, she keeps because they hold important memories and associations for her, but most new books she buys digitally.

There’s not a whole lot new in this, of course. Accounts of people joyfully converting to e-books and getting rid of clutter have littered the Internet these last few years. (Such as this one, and this one…) But it’s nice to see another. Kind of appropriate that it’s in Salon, too, given that an article in Salon Magazine is what introduced me to the idea of e-book reading on hand-held devices in the first place.

But the real fun comes in the comments below the article, wherein several people react as if North just confessed to barbecuing puppies. A commenter going by the handle “firstpersoninfinite” writes:

Book culture is not replaceable. Go to any large used book store and look at how many editions and translations of important books there are. Each one feeds upon the qualities of the one before it. Each one recognizes that other viewpoints existed before those they are now expounding upon, and they must recognize this fact. Now look at the publishers of e-books. They pretend that nothing exists except the market forces that put them there. They exist in a vacuum, so to speak, and fail to meet any cultural standards that aren’t themselves capitalistic only. Book culture was  an edifice. E-book culture is a shoe-shine stand with new rags. They will have to earn their way into significance or else culture will fall into whispering conjecture.

As another commenter points out, the e-books are the “exact same book that ‘feeds upon the qualities of the one before it,’” just in a different format. But the interesting thing to me here is that firstpersoninfinite brings up culture of old versus new publishers.

The talk of culture echoes a conversation I had with a friend several weeks ago on the matter of the DoJ/Apple trial, and the publishers versus Amazon. He pointed out that, quite frequently, matters of the old versus new come down to culture clash. When people say they like paper books, the feel of pages, smell of books, and so on, what they are more often saying is that they are in love with the culture of paper books. The musty bookstores where you can go in and spend hours rummaging through the shelves, discuss books with the proprietor, pet the bookstore cat, maybe hold conversations with a bunch of like-minded people in a reading room or around a bookstore café table. These are fond, warm memories for them, and threats to the trappings of that culture are a threat to their egos.

I’ve never been a really big part of that paper bookstore culture. I would shop at bookstores when I could, and kind of liked them, but I never really lived near a bookstore in most of my formative years; our home was out in the country. We only ever got to visit those stores when we went into town, and even then we didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend. I didn’t get to steep in that culture for hours on end, I just got a quick dip in and out.

But the culture I fell in love with was the culture of e-books. The e-book store websites where you can search by price for bargains, by author and title for specific things, and have the book in your reading device almost before you realized you wanted it. The forums, blogs, and chatrooms where I can hold conversations with like-minded people from all over the world. Those are my culture, and I’ve been really mad at the big-six publishers ever since about 1998 for clinging to the old bookstore culture and not supporting my new e-book one as much, and I cheered when Amazon did an end-run around them to open up the e-book market. Others (such as the publishers) were not so sanguine, however.

My friend pointed out that to cast old vs. new strictly in terms of economic advantage—the money that could be saved by shipping electrons vs. paper around, for instance—was missing the point that, for people in love with one culture or another, economic considerations are secondary to the emotional attachment they feel for their culture of choice. Small wonder that firstpersoninfinite compares his book culture to an “edifice” and the new culture to “a shoe-shine stand with new rags.” An e-book fan like me would probably call paper book culture an inefficient lumbering dinosaur, riddled with inefficiency. And of course we’d both be right—from our own points of view.

My friend compared it to small towns having their own post offices. The USPS could probably handle mail more efficiently by shutting down small branches and consolidating in larger centers, and earn some money by selling the unneeded properties—but it’s very important to these small towns for reasons that go beyond monetary to have their own post office, and they would fight tooth and nail any proposal to take them away.

So, next time you witness an e-book vs. print book argument, remember that all that kerfuffle over “smell of books” is really just a mask for a culture clash of old vs. new, and people aren’t necessarily going to be totally rational when something so important to their own ego is at risk. Will we lose something when and of the old paper bookstore culture dies out? Almost certainly. But then, we lose old things and gain new things all the time. That’s just how progress works.

10 Comments on Paper books vs. e-books and the clash of bookstore cultures

  1. Hayden Johnstone // June 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm //

    Fully agree. People like to read books differently. Some like paper and some like e-books. I personally am stuck in the middle. I just bought a hardcover I really wanted to read. I started reading it but then I had to go on the road for a few days. Instead of carrying the large and heavy book with me, I bought the e-version and took my e-reader with me. I finished the book and my life is still very good.

    Everyone has different tastes in this world and as long as publishers treat everyone equally and with respect then the world can be a happier place. Books should be released in all formats at the same time.

    My last little point is that the price of books to customers does not have to be based on the cost of making the book. The simple rule of business is supply and demand. Books are sold at a price point that both seller and buyer are happy with/

  2. One reason that such discussion avoids the current surge in audio books is that it is more difficult to debate a trilogy. Everyone should pause to consider the resilience of book transmission across all delivery systems and reading formats.

  3. Audio books are really a different thing, and they’ve been essentially the same since time immemorial. Changing from cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s is as not as much of a change as books to e-books. However audiobooks come out, you still listen to them through speakers or earphones just like always.

  4. Julius Adams // July 1, 2013 at 7:53 am //

    We in our home are selling all our NOOKS and abandoning eBooks at this point, despite my own fervor for it starting in the mid 90s. We have lost our taste for the inability of companies like Barnes & Noble to make the eBook business viable, having lost many books years ago when they dumped their Microsoft format eBooks, having lost a few books we paid for when they transferred the Fictionwise format books to our B&N account, having changed their devices too often and not supported the prior ones with enough decent updates, and now just abandoning their tablets (soon) as they suffer to compete. B&N lost our confidence when it comes to eBooks, and I frankly do not trust any other companies to maintin the market well either.

    Add to it the pricing issues, and the associated interminable legal battles, and it becomes just too frustrating and expensive to keep up with it all just to read. In the end much easier and more viable to just go to a book sotre (if you have those choices nearby) and buy a book, or visit the local library. We admit we miss doing that as well.

    The eBook world has been poorly thought out, mismanaged, and become too expensive to maintain (devices), and frankly it’s not worth the effort or cost in the end.

  5. Julius – the free open-source app Calibre lets you back up your ebook purchases and ensure you will always be able to read them. And I use the library to borrow ebooks. There are options….

  6. Julius Adams // July 1, 2013 at 10:44 am //

    I agree there are options, but honestly the devices aren’t worth the money anymore. Most tablets are useless in our family, with iPhones and PCs and laptops. Just don’t need them as well, and eBooks ARE available via apps to read with and libraries to obtain. I am just a bit disconcerted with B&N approach over the years, and have soured on them in general as theyhave tempted us and then abandoned things. No more money from me for their devices, that’s for sure!

  7. “Audio books are really a different thing, and they’ve been essentially the same since time immemorial. Changing from cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s is as not as much of a change as books to e-books. However audiobooks come out, you still listen to them through speakers or earphones just like always.”

    Exactly, audio book delivery offers a distinctive affordance and is derived from oral culture. My only contention is that reading affordances differ and meanings conveyed differ. I am also fond of mentioning the legacy of screen books. This was the night sky; a changing configuration of pixels on a dark field that can be read as patterns and meanings. There is still an eerie difference of affordances as paper books are read in daylight and LCD screen books best viewed in the dark.

    Forums such as TeleRead cannot really support wide discussion of the cross-format resilience of book transmission. That is no disadvantage and I follow your excellent coverage and interpretations daily…thanks!

    Gary

  8. I still love my iPad. I try to avoid the walled garden problem with books by using the library and Gutenberg Project and its offshoots. Google Books IS a walled garden but they have made some out-of-copyright materials available for free. Then there’s openlibrary.org which is another fabulous source of out-of-print works. I guess I like using a tablet still because I can easily read magazines on it (and I care less about having access to them down the road.)

  9. I woke up one morning with the thought that I was going to die. My next thought was who is going to dispose of the more than a thousand books I’ve accumulated over the past 60 years? Now that I’m almost 70 years old I see that I’m unlikely to live another 70 years. Or 50 years. Or 30 years.

    In all my life I have only disposed of one book. I love and revere books. But if each book I own weighed, on average, two pounds, then I own about one ton of books. Is it fair to put the burden of disposing of a ton of books on my heirs?

    A few years ago I started reading eBooks on an iPad. Currently I also read books on a Kindle Paperwhite, a Nexus 7, and even my smartphone. While there are a few large print books for us geezers, most paperbacks and hardcover books have small print and are more of a strain to read now than when I was younger.

    What a pleasure to set the type size on an eBook! Every ebook becomes easy to read once the type size is adjusted. It’s not that I can’t read the small print paperback despite the eyestrain; it’s just that it’s far more pleasant to read an ebook where I’ve set the type to a size that I can read comfortably. For books that are not cursed with DRM, I’ve taken to adjusting the ebooks CSS to add more space between paragraphs, which also makes it more pleasant to read the ebook. I won’t be reading paperbacks and hardcover books ever again.

    So what about the 2000 lbs of books I still own? I’ve been donating cartons of books to the library, to charities that pick up at my door, and to anyone who wants them. I’ve disposed of most of my fiction books, but still have a number of textbooks and technical books. Strangely, I can’t find anyone my age who wants to acquire physical books, even for free. Maybe they woke up with the thought that they are going to die.

    Harvey

  10. One reason I prefer real books to digitally reproduced images of text, is that I feel I am reading something that has an existence independent of battery power or whatever else makes it come into its temporary existence. I suppose there is an ephemeral quality to e books that leaves me unsatisfied. When I put my real book on my night table and turn off the light, the book, the pages, the text are all still there, as real as me. Quite a few years before e-books made their debut, I imagined (fantasized) about having an unimaginably huge collection of books spanning decades of publication and every possible genre, all in the context of being on a spaceship and entering the black void of space for years if not for an entire life. Then, sure, I would love to have every book ever published in a molecular hard drive no bigger than a fifty cent piece. It’s a feeling of plenty, of wealth that I could never exhaust. And in space, boredom and loneliness are evil twins. But back here on earth, I have enough space on my walls for the books I love, and when I die, how to dispose of them will probably not be the last thing on my mind.

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