The Brave New World of Electronic Books

 When I was in my early twenties, there was a lot of noise being made about electronic books, and the inevitable obsolescence of printed literature. As a writer and a lifelong lover of books, this was an argument in which I took some interest. I was firmly on the side of the book-as-physical-object, generations old, perhaps, with yellowing pages that smelled vaguely of custard and dust. In fact I own a few books that I keep specifically for their physical incarnations. I am thinking of one old copy of Sinclair Lewis’ Cass Timberlane, a hardcover with slightly odd dimensions, a fine binding and a pleasurable heft. Many years ago, Mr. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, wrote an editorial (or was it an Op-Ed? It was a long time ago…) that was essentially pro-electronic book. I was so moved by it that I wrote him a letter (by hand, on a yellow legal pad, in my occasionally illegible handwriting) defending the book-as-physical-object, and expressing my surprise, given his other writings, that he would be heralding the coming of the electronic book in any kind of positive light. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I’m sure that the letter was full of youthful, enthusiastic and passionate ignorance, since I didn’t know a doggone thing about electronic books, and I only knew a little (from the outside) about the publishing industry.

To my great surprise and delight, he wrote me back. It was a short, typed (on a typewriter!) note on his professional stationary and I still have it to this day, though I’m not able to put my hands on it at the moment. But it said something like this: “Perhaps there was in that piece an attempt not to be, once again, a curmudgeon stuck predictably in the past … we must learn to bear with and embrace the brave new world that awaits us, lest we lose all influence over how it evolves.”


I’ve thought of these words often over the years. They strike me as particularly wise. And yet, I was then and I am now usually quite behind the times. My family didn’t get our first color television until I was in middle school, and that was a resisted – and perhaps even partially resented – gift. Fast forward 10, 15, 20 years and you’ll see me as a young woman, only vaguely aware of the Internet that was already rapidly changing the world. My first e-mail account was set up, and paid for, by my father, who always advances into the brave new technological world far ahead of me. I argued with my husband about how unnecessary it was to get the DVD player and the TIVO (and even the toaster oven, but that’s another story). I only got a cell phone when it became absolutely necessary for work, and I don’t use it if I can help it. You might say that I’ve been kind of drug along into the modern world, kicking and screaming, every step of the way. So it’s probably not surprising that it has taken fifteen years since I wrote that letter to Mr. Yardley and received that sage advice in return for me to finally become the proud owner of an electronic reading device (ERD).

* * * * *

I have always been an avid reader. Even as a kid I did not so much read a book as devour it. Living in Europe as a child, with a small black and white television on which very little was available in English, I read a lot. We made frequent trips to the library, and I could get through two novels in a weekend and be left with time on my hands, wanting more. And I am still that way. Perhaps one of the things that I love about the world inside of a book – any book – is that it doesn’t change; it’s always there for you just the way that you love it. Inside the world of stories, struggle has a meaning that you can grasp. Endings are (usually) inevitable and satisfying. There are endings – which is one of the reasons that meaning is accessible in the first place. Literary characters to me are old and dear friends – Rumpole, Sherlock Holmes, the Famous Five – and places – London, Zenith, a stark, snowy landscape in Russia – that I can visit from time to time. Are any of these things more or less there electronically than they are in print? I mean, isn’t a book essentially what takes shape inside of us when we read it? And if so, what difference does it make whether we read it on paper or on some kind of screen? To what extent is a book its method of delivery of the words that comprise it? An argument could be made, I think, that the part of the book that matters, what you actually read, could just as well be beamed brain to brain without the intervening hoopla of author photos and endorsements and plot summarizing teaser paragraphs on the back cover. And to the extent that reading is distilled to feeling like direct communication from an author about whom I have had no opportunity to form any superficial prejudices, I have discovered that I like reading electronic versions of books. Plus, the ERD is attractive – handsome, even. It’s convenient. It’s light. I can take an entire library with me in my purse.

Besides, I have to admit that I am slowly being overrun by actual, physical books.

I’m not exactly stacking them and using them for furniture, but trust me, I could if I wanted to. I used to sell books, and so naturally I regularly cherry-picked my inventory for anything that might constitute the library that I might need to consult one day. A still-shrink-wrapped paperback copy of Ken Burns’ photo epic The Civil War? Got it. Container Gardening? Check. Dorling Kindersley’s Visual Dictionary? What can I say? Have you ever seen this book? It is cool. I have at least one copy of every Rumpole story ever written because hey, I might end up stranded on a desert island one day, and who better to accompany me than Rumpole? I still have all the books that I read in school through two college degrees, and the much more influential books I read outside of school while getting those degrees. And that’s just all the things that I’ve kept; all the things that I might want to reach out and touch once every ten years. Hundreds – thousands – of other books have cycled their way through my life. Mysteries, romances, all kinds of popular culture, literary and mainstream novels…

Truth be told, it’s gotten a little overwhelming. My taste for an unending supply of literature is now at odds with my desire for an orderly home.

* * * * *

The first electronic book I bought was actually bought by accident. I was sitting with the device in my lap, using its wireless capability to browse the store, and wish-listing things that looked interesting to me. While reading the description of a book, I accidentally selected the “buy” feature (the cursor defaults to the “buy” option when you are browsing, and all of this took place before I discovered the “try a sample” option). It immediately gave me the option to cancel the transaction, and I considered this. But then I thought – what the hell. So I confirmed the transaction and within moments the book was delivered to my device for my reading pleasure.

Only as it turned out, it wasn’t my reading pleasure. I actually didn’t like the book very much.

This is no big deal. It happens all the time. I quite regularly buy books or order books from that turn out to not be quite what I was expecting, not quite what I wanted, or not really to my taste. It’s not uncommon to read a page or two and to toss it aside. In fact even as I sit here writing this I have a box of books under my desk at my feet. All are posted on and are just waiting for a second chance to mean something to someone.

But I can’t toss my electronic book into the box. I can delete it from my device – and I did – but it left me with kind of a cold and hollow feeling, and a sense of having just wasted $9.99. And that brings me to what, fifteen years after my passionate letter to Jonathan Yardley on the subject, I’m realizing might be the real problem with electronic books.

Once a title no longer has value for you, it’s virtually impossible (pun intended) for the book to be passed on to someone else that does value it.

You cannot save a well-loved copy of an electronic book for your kids. You can’t write a thoughtful note inside the front cover and pass it on to a friend. You can’t take it to a thrift store, or donate it, or swap it, or sell it for a quarter in a yard sale. You cannot give it a new life or a second chance at love. If electronic books do anything in particular to really change the human experience of a book it’s that they take the inherent sense of cultural property out of the book as object – which is something of an epiphany to me, since I’ve always thought that the extent to which a book could be shared or passed on was a function of the person handling the book, not a property of the book itself.

I would say that as it turns out, when you “buy a book” with your ERD, you’re not really buying a book at all. You’re buying a license to read a book – whenever and wherever and however many times you want – without actually buying a book. You do not take possession of any object as a result of the transaction; what you gain is access to the experience of reading a book.

Sometimes – many times, in fact – this is totally acceptable to me; especially given the convenience of the electronic bookstore and library. Not to mention the unbelievably rich selection of literature that is in the public domain and is available for instant download – for free. On the whole I would have to say that I love my ERD, and I am definitely pro-electronic book.

And when the “license to read” alone is not acceptable? Well, then I’ll just have to buy the actual, printed and bound book – which in my opinion isn’t going anywhere.

* * * * *

I was reading an electronic book this past week (that I probably never would have bought in a traditional bookstore) and I came across this particularly intelligent observation: “The big flaw in most depictions of the future is that they always forget to leave in the past. Everyone always assumes that the entire world would just explode and be rebuilt in this kind of super-futuristic style. I still see old cars from the ’30s and ’40s around, right next to things that look like they’re from the year 2000. It’s that mix that makes things interesting.”

Well said, video game developer Cliff Bleszinski, as interviewed by Tom Bissell in his more-interesting-to-a-non-gamer-than-you-might-think-it-would-be book, Extra Lives, Why Video Games Matter.

Some things change. Some things stay the same.

I am enjoying the compact convenience and instant shopping gratification of my ERD while resting my feet on a cardboard box full of literary cast-offs currently posted on and awaiting an opportunity to travel across the country to someone who wants them more than I do. I still browse my own heavy bookshelves for perennial favorites, and I still hold yellowing old books up to my nose from time to time to get a whiff of that custardy-old bouquet. And I’m still poised to defend how things are right now, and to resist the next thing that comes along – for fifteen years or so, anyway.

  • Published on Dec 21, 2010
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