Books & eBooks

A few days ago, I tweeted an article from TechCrunch about how Amazon reports that last month, they sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books. It’s a little hard to do a complete analysis from the few numbers that they reported, especially because it’s not apples-to-apples on price, titles, etc — but even directionally, this is an amazing milestone. It’s incredible to me how quickly eBooks have emerged, after languishing for so long.

For me personally, it’s acute: I don’t really even like buying books that I can’t get electronically anymore. It shows in my library — I’ve been giving away about 100-200 books a year to our public library, but still have well over 1,000 in the house. But I have more than 150 on my Kindle, after 2 1/2 years. My physical library is shrinking, my electronic one growing.

I have zero sentimentality – none – about the form of the book. I’ve noted elsewhere that what I discovered on getting my Kindle is that it isn’t particularly books that I love so much, it’s reading that I love. Novels, non-fiction works, short stories, whatever. It’s the words that I’ve always cared about, the ideas, the narratives, the characters. Not the wood pulp, the binding glue, the flashy book jackets (that often don’t have anything at all to do with the author’s intent).

But lately I’m worried that as we rush headlong into the electronic future that we’re losing something.

I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not reading as well — every reader I talk with reports that they’re not comprehending the books quite as deeply as they used to. I believe we’ll get better at reading electronically, and the format will allow better paging through and spatial memory eventually, but that’s far from obvious to me. (Most avid readers I talk with say that they can usually remember where on the page they read something — top left, lower right, in the middle, whatever — and that’s always been true for me. The reflowable digital form obviously breaks that spatial memory, and is a bit of a problem.)

But the thing I’m worried about more lately is the disappearance of books in our physical spaces. I’ve always found that when I go visit peoples’ houses that what’s on their bookshelves is a bit of a lens into their lives and their values. Almost invariably when people come over to our house for dinner, I’ll hand them a book from my shelves that they’re interested in with no expectation (or desire, actually) to get the book back.

I find it even in my own home — when I’m in the office, I’ll often notice a cluster of books about something that reminds me of a time in my life, or stokes an old curiosity, or that just makes me happy.

But now the books we have in our house don’t really represent the current me. We tend to have 3 categories: (1) kids books, (2) coffee table books, and (3) books from our past that we haven’t given away yet. I believe that will happen in most homes — and maybe it already has been, since the introduction of the television — and it makes our personal spaces much more anonymous — more screens, less deep content.

I feel the same thing as I travel around — in the airport or on airplanes, nobody can see what I’m reading. Mostly, that’s okay with me — I didn’t really want to talk to my seat neighbor about Stieg Larsson that much anyway. But it bugs me more that my wife can’t see what I’m reading — the books used to serve as an instant conversation-starter. Now the reading experience is faceless, not conversation-inviting at all.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ll replace books as a lens into our brains and lives with something else — digital picture frames? Facebook pages glowing from our walls at home?

Nevertheless, I think we’re losing something in the process. That always happens as we move from one technology to the next, but we’ve overturned a 500 year old technology in less than a decade, and it’s going to be very disorienting.

I’ve never missed reading physical books nearly as much as I miss having the physical artifacts in our world, and how so many clues to who we are are disappearing along with them.


  1. This is a cheap comment, but: +1.

    Having people scan your bookshelves when they come to visit (and doing the same) has always been a window for me, a conversation starter. “Oh, you’ve read such and such? What did you think of so and so?” Etc.

    Now, what? You might glimpse what’s on the DVR if it comes up, or talk about something one of you tweeted? Something you shared as a Facebook link?

    We still have a lot of books in our house, but I can’t think of the last time we bought any that weren’t Kindle editions. Rob and I still talk about our books (mostly by directly asking, rather than passively observing), but it’s still a whole different sort of thing.

    Where are the cultural artifacts in a digital age?

  2. im hoping that ebooks will supplement in the future, not completely replace. i, like you, am not setimental about books BUT im sentimental about reading actual books. i stare at my computer all day and i dont need to stare at a screen to read for pleasure.

  3. I am trying to view this page on Firefox 3.6.7 on Windows and the font is really blurry. Its so bad that it is actually painful to read.

    • Alfred — could you send me a screen shot? also try going to View -> Zoom -> Reset to see if it makes a difference?

  4. I’m hoping to travel quite a bit after I retire, and I don’t want to give up my library, so I’m actively converting my paper books to electronic books. The only paper copies I buy anymore are titles like photography books where the information exchange is primarily graphical rather than text.

    There are aspects I miss about curling up with a good book in my lap rather than an eBook, but I’m working through them. The ability to have a library in my backpack is a marvel I’m also not willing to give up.

  5. I love my ebook reader, and like you, I almost refuse to buy paper books anymore. Especially in Australia, with our massive markups.

    As a lifelong bachelor, however, books are basically the only way I know how to decorate. It used to be easy to cover 12 feet of wall space with books and never have to give it a second thought.

    Now I’m screwed.

  6. the ebooks have another, IMO, critical flaw which is their durability. Do you really think that your grandsons will be able to read the ebooks you are hoarding in your kindles, ipads, etc? I doubt it very much. My father died when i was 3 but I still have his book collection, and sometimes when i go through the old stuff accumulated in the basement, I occasionally find a book that belonged to my grandfather, with leathery covers, dust and a really small print. I would be surprised if you could do this kind of inter-generation spread of knowledge and experiences electronically.

    I think ebooks will complement rather than substitute traditional books, the same way all the new music formats haven’t killed the radio.

  7. Me too. I definitely prefer reading ebooks over traditional books these days (I didn’t think this would happen!) I’ve been giving away books that I can get in the library or that I can get in digital format. I don’t miss being surrounded by them. I do however prefer paper for books that are mostly visual (graphic novels, photography & design related books etc)…so my shelves are now mostly filled with books that are not easily consumed on an eReader – at least not yet…I’m looking forward to seeing what new kinds of “books” artists, illustrators and writers produce for the iPad 🙂

  8. Having reread this post several times now in the course of debugging Typekit’s funky user agent sniffing, I can’t resist a few comments.

    I enjoy reading on the Kindle but I do miss the ability to skim casually. While reading Richard Evan’s “The Coming of the Third Reich” I never had a sense of “where am I in this book?”. The book has zillions of pages of footnotes so the location indicator doesn’t provide that feedback. You definitely miss the “sweep” of the book because you can’t easily flip through the pages.

    In some ways having a book in eBook form makes it easier to treat it like another blog post or news article, it’s easier to forget it’s there. A book sitting around with a bookmark in it is a good reminder – “hey buddy, remember me?”.

    I look forward in the future to reading tech books on an iPad reader, I hate having to manage the large tomes that inevitably accumulate on my shelves. I use Oreilly’s Safari Online but for really reading it’s still clunky. Some titles are in image format because of the limitations of HTML which means the text quality is fuzzy. An iPad with Retina display, now we’re talking…

    It might seem like a minor thing to some but I find the low-quality font on the Kindle tiresome, I wish Amazon had put in a little more time to coming up with better font options, ones that make better use of the higher resolution of the eInk display. That’s a missed opportunity I think.

  9. I love reading. I always had. I even ordered a Kindle a couple of days ago.

    I too have the same concern about the book as a conversation starter. But on top of this, I’m concerned about the impossibility of sharing. Overall, books are a great tool to socialize: starting conversations, giving away a book that you loved and that you think may be of some interest to the recipient. Also — as Borja wrote above — as something something that carries cultural heritage. Something that survives us. Our culture, influenced by the Internet and TV before it, is becoming more and more instantaneous. Books are important tools, in my opinion, to balance this.

    We need to evolve copyright and get rid of DRMs so that electronic books can be shared with others and last longer than our lifetime.