Ebooks and Desire

In my bedroom there’s a thick wall of books, seven piles across, and about fifteen titles deep. This is where my overflow has gone to, through lack of bookshelf space, and I find I don’t mind at all. The books are gorgeous, shiny, vividly colourful and promising and every time I look at them (and I look at them a lot), I see ones I want to pluck from the pile right away and start reading. And I wondered to myself: if these books didn’t exist in paper form, if they were only a list of titles on a kindle, would I be so keen to read them? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. Instead, confronted with a numbered list of contents, I’d have to face up to how many books I actually possess (undoubtedly more than I can read) and feel obliged to be sensible in future. The ones at the far end of the list, like the titles on the back end of my amazon wish list, would have trouble ringing bells in my memory – why did I buy that book again? What did I want it for? And I would be cut off from the sense of variety that the real book gives me; the longing for a fat embossed book after a slim literary novel, the desire for that slightly battered paperback that I bought when I was in my twenties working at the bookstore, a big, beautiful hardback, the neat smallness of an old-fashioned crime novel. On an electronic device, it would just be a lot of pages, all samey, just more stuff to read.

Another anecdote: on holiday, for the first time in four years, my son read a whole fiction novel. He’d seen me read it, and then he’d watched his father read it. We’d discussed it together and laughed about it (it was David Nicholl’s Starter For Ten, a very, very funny book, warmly recommended). And then one afternoon he picked it up and started reading it, and didn’t stop until he got to the end. He had to look at that book long enough for it to become an object of desire to him. If he’d been staring at the back of a kindle screen, he wouldn’t have evolved an interest in that specific book, wouldn’t have seen anything different to what he’s seen day in day out all his life (his mother reading). It could just as easily have provoked a desire in him for a nintendo rather than a novel.

At the moment ebooks are subject to hard sell because publishers think they want us to have them. They have novelty on their side. And in a society where the paramount consumer desire is for new hi-tech gadgetry, they really ought to sell – no conditions could be more favourable. But I’m curious about what will happen five years down the line, when the novelty has worn off. In a world where shopping depends on visibility (being able to see and covet what we want) and variety (we want something different to what we have already), what will make us buy MORE ebooks when we already have some? We’ll just be purchasing more pages of text on a screen, exchanging money for something highly ephemeral. Unless you’re actually reading the book, there’ll be nothing to show beyond an icon, and how many of those would you really line up in advance, and then still want in six month’s time, when the first joy of ownership has worn off?

As negative as all this sounds, I am not in fact in opposition to ebooks. What I’m in opposition to is the idea that the opportunity they represent will be squandered by desperate publishers, trying to use them to replace the paper book entirely. I think that ebooks are potentially excellent for specific things, and here’s some of them:

Travel – this has always seemed an excellent idea; you take the kindle or whatever, rather than lug around all the novels you might want in a fortnight. Not so great if you drop on the tracks getting out of the train or the batteries go flat as you’re waiting for a delayed flight in an airport at midnight, but still, there are evident advantages.

Research – marvelous for academics trying to get hold of rare books, out of print books, books that few libraries bought, books in the library of your own university when it’s vacation time. Also good for carrying all the books around that you might need to write an article, say, and for searching texts online. Also, I would have thought that academic publishing could gain a new lease of life and finally stop whining about low print runs.

New writing – edgy, exciting, unusual new writing, niche writing, poetry, all the risk areas of the publishing world that have been pruned out of existence thanks to the big conglomerates could be put out in ebook format. The point being you could publish relatively cheaply, have fewer concerns about bestsellers, and then hopefully convert cautious readers to writing they might otherwise never have tried. You’d have to hope the publishers were sensible and didn’t attach an unreasonable price tag, or else it would never work.

Subscriptions – I could really see this working with genre fiction: crime, romance, sci-fi. You subscribe to a publisher and once a month, say, you’d get the latest publication in your ereader. It would be a way to try out new authors, be assured of your favourite reading matter, have the excitement of a new book coming your way, and again, you’d hope to benefit from discounted rates.

Self-publishing – this is a double-edged sword. As the barriers to getting published by the traditional route become ever more ludicrous, more and more thwarted authors are going to turn to ebook publishing. But beware: when people really wise up to how easy this is to do, it could mean turning on your ereader and being informed that every day, another couple of hundred titles are out. And how to distinguish between them? But still, exciting new authors could still make it through this way.

Freebies – again, as many disadvantages as advantages. Sure, free stuff is great, but those who want to protect library funding need to watch out for this. Governments are reluctant enough to spend money on libraries as it is, and if they felt that anyone who wanted to read free books could do so easily enough via the Gutenburg project, the backlists of modern classic authors and new publicity offers made by publishers, then the reasons for expensive state libraries start to look shaky, particularly as the older, technology-unfriendly generations die out. Remember that they are looking for reasons not to fund. But used wisely, the free offer could attract a lot more people towards reading, and encourage readers to read more widely.

So, generally my point is, if ebooks want to have a long, sustainable life, they need to offer something specific and different, something that exploits their unique advantages. Ebooks could be such a wonderful supplement to the book market, opening new sectors up, tempting people to read more because they have a variety of ways to enjoy reading, offering publishers and readers alike access to forms of writing we might have had to lose due to the strictures of profitable commerce. But I feel we need to think about what ebooks do well and what they do badly. What makes them desirable, beyond novelty? Otherwise, readers will be confronted in a few year’s time with little more than boring black plastic devices and an ocean of undifferentiated text – publicity chapters, bestsellers, self-published books of dubious quality, old classics, out of print non-fiction – and none of it will look special or particular or even particularly desirable. Just pages and pages of homogenized type – the part of the book that the actual, real, hold-in-your-hand, book-as-lovely-object is designed to make you forget. Even I would want to step away from that and find something else to do.

24 thoughts on “Ebooks and Desire

  1. Hello there, Litlove.

    Thanks for another interesting article. The break from blogging has obviously not put rust or dust on your interests.

    You talk about ebooks and poetry. Here’s an interesting article about Kindles and poetry:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/breaking-up-is-hard-lines-of-poetry-a-tough-fit-in-e-form/article1639820/

    For myself, I like the idea of books on shelves and displayed so I can see them, as you describe, and I like the thronging multitude. Why ration oneself to a thin tablet with scrolling? I do enough reading off a computer at work without pleasure-reading being made to fit the same format. I also dislike being told that what I’m reading is almost obsolete; that’s not going to get me to like Nook or Kindle or anything like it.

    Say I dropped a book in the bath, or threw one out in the window in anger when I read, in non-fiction, an author saying ‘the characters just decided what needed to be done’ or ‘some parts of the book just wrote themselves,’ well, then I lose one book; if my library (or even just several books) was on a Kindle, all the other books would go with it. That wouldn’t please me.

    Personally, nothing can match the pleasure of opening physical mail and plucking out a book from some bookseller or a publisher. So I’m in the majority who rely on books and like them as objects in the world.

    We all know people who like gadgets for their own sake. Excluding them, it’ll take time for us to find out what ebooks can do that are good, or different, or which supplement the physical book. Vinyl is with us (and not as a rarefied item) in music even with CDs and downloading torrents. There’s room for all sorts of media to exist simultaneously. But I know where my sentiments lie.

  2. I think we all have a dilemma with ebooks. I don’t collect books and except for a very few, I pass them on when I’ve read them. But still they mount up – and an electronic version of books I’ve read would be very welcome. But I’d still prefer to read them on paper

  3. I’ve had the same experience with my kids, Litlove. And between them, too. I agree that if all I was doing was reading a kindle, it wouldn’t have the same effect. This is a novelty and I hope that sooner, rather than later, publishers will realize what you’ve written there. Care to cc it to them?

  4. I also think there is a place for ebooks, but it is alongside paper books. I know I am not ready to give up my lovely piles of books that I also have as spill-over in my bedroom. I love being able to grab a book that catches my eye on a whim–they’re so tactile and visually pleasing in a way that a Kindle will never be. Working in a library I see how technology is overtaking paper resources, but it doesn’t come cheaply or easily. It’s nice in terms of saving space, but the cost is ridiculous (am thinking about periodicals which are moving more and more towards digital format–we have to cut titles just to afford databases as the price increases every year but our budget does not!) and then there are licenses to sign–we haven’t quite worked things out for ebooks (again–pricey with licenses and the books may not even stay, once the agreement is up the books may disappear–something that doesn’t happen with paper books if they are cared for). We have a slew of Kindles for our patrons to use and they are quite popular, but (there is always a but) they were intended for interlibrary loan use. As it turns out almost all the titles are primarily popular reading titles. I think the types of books students might use for serious research are not yet available in digital format, so the requests are shot out to other libraries who do have the materials (in paper form). I was thinking, too, how great it would be for OOP titles to be available in a digital format, but what I want is just not out there and will it ever be? I’d happily read Dorothy Whipple’s first novel in digital format–I can’t find a paper edition of it to borrow anywhere-but neither is there an ebook either. Who chooses what gets put into that format? If it’s publishers, forget it, as they worry about their bottom line they’ll go once again for big sellers and not the more esoteric books or types of books that might have sold well but were never blockbusters. So, yes, it is an option, but I think there is a really long way to go before paper books disappear. I know there are lots of very serious readers who have ebook readers, but do you think the majority of people have these gadgets because they are readers or because lots of people like new technologies? Sorry, am going on, but one last thing–not everyone can afford such pricey toys. I know people who depend almost exclsively on library books, who don’t even have a computer. Paper books are still far more egalitarian and accessible to everyone.

  5. You have some great thoughts on this one. Truth be told I can’t fathom having an e-reader for a variety of reasons. First: Most connect to the internet only serving to enable me spending/purchasing more books. I need that kind of ease like I need a hole in the head. Second: The devices are costly and, as I like having a book in my hand anyway, so it is prohibitive to purchase one. Never mind all the books I actually own that I still need to read… Ultimately, the appeal does seem to be more novelty based unless one considers “going green” as an affordable priority.

  6. I would never want to give up printed books, that’s for sure. But I realize how my professional reading habits have changed over the last 15 years – now that academic papers are completely digital. I usually have printed copies for marking and working with it, but I love the digital archiving possibilities and even more so the search options.
    Sometimes I find myself missing these possibilities when I read printed books – even when I am reading for pleasure – for example when I want to go back and find the page where a certain character was introduced or a specific scene I only vaguely remember.
    So I am really curious how I will be reading in 10 or 20 years from now.

  7. You raise some good points here. I finally bought a Kindle last May when I was on my way to Germany and couldn’t bring a suitcase just for my books. It was very convenient to have everything I wanted to read already loaded up and ready to go. I had some magazines for take off and landing. The battery on my Kindle lasts 7 days so battery life wasn’t and isn’t an issue. But do the books I have loaded on my Kindle “speak to me” the way the ones on my shelf do? Definitely NOT! Nothing will ever replace printed books for me but I do have to say that for my son’s generation, I don’t think it will be an issue. They live their whole lives on the internet it seems so having something printed in their hands can sometimes seem quite foreign to them.

  8. I have gone back and forth on ebooks and ereaders so many times. One day I’ll feel like I desperately want one, and the next day I’ll go all Luddite and complain about all the things ebooks have that books don’t. It seems like a lot of people fear it’s an either/or proposition–once ebooks are The Thing, nobody will have physical books anymore–which I am not convinced of. Physical books are so lovely. I cannot imagine how people would do without them.

  9. Like you, I can see a place for e-books, but I don’t see myself getting an e-reader, much less giving up print books, anytime soon. I just like the tactile experience of a paper book so much. I can see liking the options for annotating and searching, but I don’t imagine the reading itself would be as pleasant for me.

    One area where I can see e-books being particularly useful, though, is in the realm of quickly outdated books. Books on current political figures, the star of the moment, or today’s hot topic might be ideal for a digital format. They aren’t the kinds of books people will want to read 10 or even 5 years from now, but lots of people do want to read them. If those people are the same ones buying e-readers, then printing fewer and e-delivering more makes good sense.

  10. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, wrote a book I’ve still yet to read called Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, and how we connect the objects around us psychologically to memories and meaning. (It’s kind of why hoarders can’t get rid of anything.) Still, I think it’s important to note that a book is a solid object in the world, a thing we can experience with our senses, and that is very different from just the words and worlds it contains.

  11. When the price of the Nook (and then the Kindle) dropped by – what $50? – recently I honestly thought long and hard about getting one. I almost bought a Nook. And then I started thinking about all the things I loved about reading and books. Sure, I read a book for the content, but there is also pleasure in the smell and feel of the book, of noticing how the book feels in the hands, the widening mass in the left hand and the thinning mass in the right as the book is read. And then there’s that magical moment when you turn the last page and read the last word and close the back cover. I decided that all that I love about reading can’t be duplicated in an eReader. I might get one one day as a supplement, but not a replacement, to my book library. And, let’s face it, I’ve never found it a problem in carrying enough reading material comfortably if I go on a trip. For those who prefer the eReader, however, I say go for it.

  12. You know where I fall on the ebook issues. I completely agree that ebooks are good for some things and bad for others. They are still so very new that I don’t think publishers have been able to really imagine how an ebook could supplement paper or how it could be different. There will be growing pains for sure, but at least we still have our print books, and always will, to cling to in the meantime.

  13. I think it’ll be apps, LL… I think in five years, what you’ll see with e-books is a kind of CGI-style phenomenon in film – they’ll be able to do all sorts of really cool text-specific stuff. Links, images, anime, drop out boxes, and god knows what else. I think you’re right about the advantages, and also right that they’ll need to offer a different experience, and I think, in time, they will.

  14. It’s exciting considering the additional possibilities of e-books. While there’s no substitute for a real book I’m interested to see what it’s like to actually read on a kindle or equivalent. I struggle to read a lot of blogs for example because too much on-screen reading tires my eyes. And I’m also about ten years behind the technology curve so I think I’ll have to buy all the other gadgets first.

  15. I do own an e-reader, and it’s very useful for traveling (of which I do a fair amount). But as soon as I get home I’m happy to return to my overflowing stacks of books, both old and new. All things in moderation, I say. Electronic reading matter will never replace printed – at least not in my book😉

  16. One of the things I love about books is the sensuousness of them. As you pointed out, they have a weight, a feel and a smell. They look good, and last for lifetimes. They are always there, regardless of power problems or version changes. Will Kindle 5.3 carry the same books, in the same format as Kindle 1.0?. What happens to my Kindle collection should it fall in the bathtub? The paper books of my youth remain the same. No PC’ing of WE Johns’ “Biggles” or Enid Blyton’s tales of long ago childhoods. And I wonder how a second-hand kindle shop would smell.

  17. Nothing can ever replace the feel of a good book. But I agree with you about the advantages of ebooks for travel in particular. Something in me shies away from poetry in an electronic format, and hopes that when the hype over the new technology dies down, small presses will again have their day. That people will want more than ever a book that is a work of art in itself as well as in content. But perhaps I’m naive….

  18. Jeff – well, really I feel the same and I do like reading in the bath, which is something I could never attempt with an electronic device! Thank you for linking to the interesting article on poetry, too. Oh and getting books in the mail is sheer joy – as is browsing in a bookstore and leaving with a weighty carrier bag. I want to be confident that those things will still be available for those of us who like them, but I still have my fingers crossed. I’m aware what poor decisions big business makes in relation to publishing. But still, it may all come good yet.

    Tom – now there’s an app they haven’t perfected yet – dematerialising the book for storage. Well, give them time!🙂

    Lilian – aww you are so kind. And I’m really glad to know your kids have done the same thing. My son adores the computer and spends a lot of time on it, but would he then prefer to read a book on a screen? He says no, and I believe him.

    Danielle – I found it really interesting to read about your experiences in the library with digital material. There’s so much there I didn’t know or hadn’t considered. But I did notice the other day that the kindle here in the UK is still over a hundred pounds. Wow!!! That is SO expensive, so I’m not surprised if the material is proving a budget problem. And I am so with you on the question of OOP titles. If someone told me I’d have access to Dorothy Whipple’s complete back catalogue, plus that of Richmal Crompton and the Collins Crime Club, well I would find the money from somewhere to buy one. It’s the thought of only popular titles appearing on it that removes all my interest. I do feel sure that the people who are most open to new technology are going to be first in line for ereaders, or people who love to read while they travel, but my sense is that no one I know has swapped completely to the ereader, and so that must indicate consumer determination to hold onto paper too!

    Kimberley – a while ago I looked into the green aspects of the technology and they were far from certain, particularly given the swift obsolescence of such devices. But I didn’t realise until recently how very expensive they are to own. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal, why spend £100 before you can read anything at all?

    Chris – I haven’t done any serious research since the advent of the new technology, so I don’t know what it would be like to use it. It’s very interesting, therefore, to have your thoughts on that. I admit I have often wished I could quickly source a quotation from amongst a number of different publications, and it would be very helpful to be able to do so!

    Kathleen – but do you think your son would prefer to read on an ereader? Mine’s just like yours, very techno-savvy, but he says he certainly wouldn’t be any more interested in reading because a screen was involved. Still, I’m very interested to hear about your experience, and I fully appreciate your position. I can see it would be helpful for travel, but glad too that you still like paper books.

    Jenny – I really really don’t like the either/or position. I feel it only makes sense to have both formats, but you do read a lot of scary stuff around that enthuses about phasing out paper. I do hope that never happens. Books are different to music, for instance, because they ARE about the object as much as its contents.

    Teresa – that’s an excellent idea. Lots of non-fiction is very time specific. And things like business books, too, could easily be put on ereaders because they are more about information than the quality of a reading experience.

    Squirrel – I’m making a note of that author and book as it sounds extremely interesting and something I’d like to read about myself. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Grad – absolutely. If the ereader enhances the experience for other readers then by all means they should have it and love it. But as I test out my own responses here, I can feel that $50 is still a bit much to pay in my mind. Interesting that the price should have dropped so much. I wonder if that was to do with the trouble B & N are in at the moment (which is really sad). I’d hope for them to sell loads of Nooks if it meant they’d stay in business!

  19. Stefanie – I’m really glad that you have found a good way of enjoying your books in ALL formats – that seems wonderful to me. The ereader as a supplement and a useful alternative in some situations seems just right. But I do hope that publishers get their act together a bit better over the place that ereaders are going to hold. It sort of frustrates me, but then the situation is probably way more complicated than I am imagining. It’s easy to stand outside and judge!

    Doctordi – I’m sure you’re right, and it doesn’t really make my heart sing. I never much liked pop-up books as a child, and the app thing is sort of like electronic pop-ups to me. But still, if it broadens and widens the creative experience, I’ll find a genuine cheer for it. If it makes it all more superficial, I will boo.

    Pete – lol! Mister Litlove and I realised that we’d been married for about 10 years and all our electronic equipment was still the second hand stuff that had been given to us when we first set out! So we are generally hopelessly behind the times. I really don’t like reading on screen, although I do it now, but in all fairness I haven’t ever tried to read an ebook and I would do it for the right incentive (ie the right content).

    Becca – all things in moderation sounds very wise to me! I’m in full agreement with that!

    Emily – well, it gladdens my heart nevertheless to know that for sure!🙂 Perhaps it will all come good in the end. I do hope so.

    Archie – lol! A second hand kindle wouldn’t be too appealing to me, at least! You wouldn’t know where it’s been, to coin a phrase. And that’s something that I absolutely dread – the endless, endless upgrades that will inevitably happen. I’ll bet that Biggles book is a joy to own.

    ds – I have such hope for small presses, although I know the problems of distribution and marketing are huge. You know what I wish? That the whole book publishing world would realise that competition is misplaced. I don’t buy books from RandomHouse as opposed to Faber and Faber, for instance, and so there is no reason why publishers shouldn’t pool resources, collaborate, work together, help each other out. But then, I’m sure I’m naive in these matters. It just seems to me that they could do so much more if the bookstores weren’t always ripping the publishers off and the publishers weren’t always mistreating their authors, and so on. I am sure much money is wasted, in fact, this way.

  20. I second those who have said that e-books are good for some of the kinds of reading or reading situations many of us have. It has never made sense to me that many people carry on the conversation as if it’s an “either/or” or “for/against” situation. I have a Sony Reader with a touch screen, and it is perfectly intuitive to read on it. It also has a number of useful features for research-related reading, from the ability to carry a whole lot of material easily to functions that allow me to bookmark and annotate, not extensively, but handily. I realized early on that if I tag the bookmarks with a bit of care, for instance, the result is a personalized index of topics I’m interested in, so I can easily call up relevant bits of the book. I’ve used it for reading out-of-print books, too; while I could read them on my laptop, the Reader is easier on my eyes as it’s not back-lit, and it has approximately the same heft and feel as a book, so it’s just a more comfortable experience. The other thing I have used it for is borrowing books from the library–recent mysteries, for instance–that I don’t feel strongly about owning. If I would borrow rather than buy a book anyway, the e-reader is perfect…and it’s cool to sign the book out from the convenience of my home office without a trip to the library when it’s winter and -30. But I still love “real” books for all kinds of reasons, from the ease and simplicity of their use to the tactile pleasures they offer (though let’s not kid ourselves, many mass market paperbacks offer no particular aesthetic pleasure!) to the strong associations and histories they can have.

  21. The sand that dropped out of the pages of the book I’ve just read whilst on holiday in Cornwall (Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak) tells me I am probably safer with a paper book for now – on a slightly different note I’ve just recommended this blog on mine (http://www.keepingyourspiritsup.org.uk) and written a few bits on summer holiday reading and why that might be good for us psychologically if anyone is interested. Nothing like as well written or informed as this blog though!!

  22. Rohan – that’s really interesting to hear about your own experiences of using a Sony reader. I can identify with the pull towards ebooks for mysteries (for instance) that are a throwaway read, effectively. And I did think it would have all kinds of useful research options. But I haven’t heard of anyone who has been completely won over to digital – which I cannot help but feel is a good thing.

    Sarah – you are so kind! I’m going to add you to my blogroll and feed reader now because I am terrible at blog housekeeping and will forget to do it yet again otherwise. And glad to know you had some good reading on holiday!

  23. I realize I’m A MONTH LATE to comment here, but I’ve been waiting for the arrival of the kindle3 I ordered in August. It arrived a few days ago and I’m amazed, really and truly amazed, by how very much I love it. Its nestled in this pebbly orange/brown leather cover with a reading light and it has a kind of compact beauty that I very much like. It’s not a book, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lovely, useful object. The minute it arrived, I loaded most of western literature on it. (Okay, that’s a total exaggeration — but I did put all of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dickens, Gaskell, James, Twain, Melville, Whitman, Yeats, Trollope, Eliot, Hardy, Bronte(s), Austen, Forster, and Ulysses on there. This cost about $25 or so. It’s such a pleasure to touch that solid, orange book-like thing in my bag and know just what treasures I have with me. There’s more to say, but instead of junking up your comments by going on and on, maybe I’ll actually post something on my blog about it. Anyway, I’ve missed reading you, am glad my self-imposed exile is at an end, and hope your infection’s healing. xoxoxoxo

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