Ranting Now in Progress.

Okay, so you read the subject title right? Don't say you haven't been warned.

This is a copy (more or less) of a comment I left on a discussion about the digital vs paper debate. It's an expanded and very much edited version, I must point out, and this is something I am able to accomplish easily and quickly and with complete convenience because I'm composing it on my computer. I'm not typing it on paper. I'm not writing it by hand. I'm a child of technology and damned proud of it.

Yes, My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite childhood books. Yes, I want to know how to tan deerskin and hand-raise a baby falcon. Yes, the idea of living alone in a tree in the middle of the forest sounds positively idyllic...in theory. In practice, I want my modern conveniences and I want them now.

I'm old enough to prefer oil paints to acrylics, and I've yet to be convinced that digital pictures will ever match (or even approximate) the beauty of film--and if you think I'm nuts on the subject of film, you should hear my husband, the photographer/filmmaker rant! But, when it comes to books, I'm firmly of the opinion that reading is reading is reading and  none of the supposed advantages of paper over digital that I've ever heard--with the possible exception of sharing and recycling--really holds much water.

One of the first things people tend to talk about in these discussions is our dependence on technology and the disasters that will befall society should technology break down. What if your computer gets a virus, they ask, as if that's never happened. What if the internet goes away? What if there's a blackout? An earthquake? A flood? How're you gonna read your ebooks then????

And, you know, I'm sure this is a really valid concern. I suspect we'd all be inconvenienced if we had to do without cars, electricity, running water, phones...but, hey, that's no reason to turn all Amish either. Cars break down--so what?  Horses die. You wanna walk everywhere? Go for it. You're not gonna have much free time for reading anyhow. 

However, since the Kindle, nook, Sony Reader, et al,  can run for a considerable period--like a couple of weeks per charge--on battery power, I'm not really seeing this as an issue. Between that and the lighted screens--they're pretty much blackout proof, to my way of thinking, at least in the short-term. 

Here's my final word on the subject: If you're stuck without electricity for longer than a couple of weeks--and it's not by choice--then I'm guessing reading-for-entertainment is not going to be anywhere near the top of your priority list. And good thing, too, since you'll probably be forced to burn your paper books for fuel.

You also hear people complain about eye-strain. Trust me, this too is nothing new. All my life I've been hearing how reading too much can strain your eyes. Or how reading in bad lighting (like when you use a flashlight under the covers, 'cause it's bedtime and you don't want to stop) is bad for you.  Or watching too much TV. Or sitting too close to the TV.

Yeah, well, what can I tell you? People also used to say that masturbation would make you blind--and no, I'm not that old. Or that messed up.  However, I do not personally believe something as trivial as  fear of eye-strain has ever made anyone stop any of those activities. And it never will. In any case, the point is moot since the newest e-readers have been designed to be easier on the eyes than paper. 

As a matter of fact, they've been designed to be easier, period. Pretty much anything you can do with a paper book, you can do with your digital reader...although you might want to think twice before you throw it at the wall.

For some reason, the pro paper people (don'tcha love alliteration?) always want to talk about bookmarks, 'cause god forbid you lose your place while reading. Well, where's the prob? You can bookmark your place using an e-reader just as easily as you can with a paper book. More easily, actually, since virtual bookmarks are harder to lose and you don't have to desecrate anything by folding corners.

I don't know about the rest of you all, but I really hate folded corners on books. It's right up there with writing in books. Pisses me right the hell off.

Then there's the physicality issue. Really? You need to hold your book in your hands? Is this kindergarten?

I personally like the hands-free ease of reading on my computer. I'm not usually a big fan of multi-tasking, but anything that allows me to read and drink wine at the same time without juggling is a Very Good Thing, IMO.

But, you know, variety is the spice of life and it makes for a better horse race, or something. And that's why dedicated ebook readers exist. They exist for the pleasure of those who prefer a more hands-on reading experience. 

Why do the luddites not grasp this concept? Why do they not embrace it as their own?  

Because they have been ergonomically designed to feel good in the hands, ebook readers offer not just an equally sensual reading experience, but in fact a better one.  This is especially true if you have any medical or physical condition that makes holding ordinary books (not to mention turning the pages) difficult. Oh, and they're easier if you can only use one hand, too.

Of course, eye strain and dexterity aren't the only physical issues to take into account either. While it's true expensive electronic gadgets and sturdy don't generally belong in the same sentence, which might make them Not a Great Choice for Kids,  which would you really rather have to repair--a damaged e-reader or your child's spine?

I mean, have you hefted one of their backpacks lately? No, excuse me, let me re-phrase that. Have you tried to heft one of their backpacks lately? Scary, isn't it?

Next thing people complain about when it comes to ebooks is the fact that they don't physically exist. Um, yeah. I'm sure y'all have heard my thoughts on that. Again, I'm not quite sure why people think it's an advantage that books be so...tactile. Especially since this is somehow connected in people's minds with words like "real" and "lasting" and "permanent" rather than words like "heavy" "awkward" "cumbersome" and "really, really easy to damage".

I just don't get it. Did I somehow miss the titanium-reinforced-paper boat here?  You know, 'cause, really, last I heard, paper wasn't generally considered the most durable of substances. 

Water and paper? Not good. Fire and paper? Ooh, really not good. Dogs, damp, mold, mice, insects, time, children--did I leave anything out? These are all the mortal enemies of paper books.  Even the normal wear and tear of reading and re-reading them degrades them. And that's when you don't just lose them. Or leave them on a train. Or spill things on them...

Replacing them when they become--for whatever reason--unreadable is expensive and sometimes impossible if they've gone out of print. Most digital bookstores, on the other hand, keep track of your purchases, making it easy(and generally cost free) to replace your library in the unlikely event you simultaneously lose and/or damage all the electronic devices on which you've stored copies of your books. And, for the most part, ebooks are also less expensive to buy than print in the first place. More cost savings = more new book buying. Yay! Go, team!

Of course, it's true that if you get your e-reader wet, it's not going to work too well anymore--and since they're not currently inexpensive, I can see how that would be a bummer. But the same could be said of most electronics and yet we deal with that. I honestly can't recall the last time I heard about anyone refusing to buy...oh, let's say a radio...on the pretext that dropping one in his or her bath tub would render it useless. 

And, it seems to me that would be a lot bigger deal for them personally than having to replace the  ol' Kindle. Besides, since we're on the subject of baths, if you combine your ebook reader with another high-tech gadget--the plastic bag--you can read in the bath, or at the pool, or  in the rain safely and with ease. Ever try reading a paperback through a plastic bag? Yeah, not so much.

I guess I just don't understand why people feel there's something particularly sacrosanct about paper books. Letters written by hand, a personal note, an autograph, or anything that might reasonably be considered, in some fashion, a keepsake--absolutely. That I get. And, trust me, I'm as sentimental as they come. Much to my daughter's disgust--and my husband's too, now that I think of it--I happily schlep boxes and boxes of my kids' artwork, school work, birthday cards, letters, notes, scribbles, scrawls (virtually anything they've ever committed to paper) around with me through move after move. After move. 

My son, on the other hand, sensitive Pisces that he is, gets the sentimental thing. Then again, it's been kind of a while since he's been one of  the ones actually doing the schlepping, so it could just be he's humoring me.  

In any case, the point is, these are the kinds of paper products that will never be replaced by digital facsimiles...at least I don't think they will.  But mass produced printed material, on the other hand? No. Not even close.

Now, because I live in California...or, possibly more to the point, because my husband and I have produced a couple of documentaries on Old Growth Forests, I also have to mention the "green" issue as related to e-books vs print.

Economics and greed currently ensure that, when it comes to the publishing industry in particular, recycled paper products--or paper made from more sustainable resources such as hemp or bamboo--don't stand a chance. Perhaps, if print books become a rarity, valued as much for their beauty and craftsmanship as for their content, then making paper books more "green" will be an additional selling point. But, for right now, with the current mass-market book buying public already carping about the high cost of buying print, the clear cutting will continue. And that's just wrong.

For me, that alone would be enough to make paperless books attractive. I'll gladly forgo the somewhat dubious pleasure of having to hold a physical book in both my hands as I read if it means my grandchildren might someday have the chance to read one of my books in the shade of a primordial forest. 

Well, okay, maybe not one of my books...or, at least, maybe not all of them... But any book, even My Side of the Mountain.

 But, speaking of primordial, if it's heft and durability you're after in your reading material, why  do you wanna mess around with the modern-day equivalent of papyrus scrolls at all? Why not just go back to using stone tablets?  


Kelly Jamieson said...

I love your rants PG! You are most eloquent. Hint: Ziploc freezer bags are the perfect size for my Sony reader in the bathtub, at the pool or beach.

booklover0226 said...

Your rant is priceless, PG. I just loved it.

Kelly - that's a good idea about using a Ziploc bag. I have a Sony reader, too, and just love it.

Becca Dale said...

I think you've hit on every arguement in the book. Well done.

PG Forte said...

aw, thanks y'all. I guess you can tell I really love ebooks, huh?

Alanna Coca said...

love your post PG. I'll be linking to it!