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Why Digital Books Won’t Diminish Connections

In the  Globe and Mail, Russell Smith lamented the effect of e-books on personal book collections, writing in part:

“So we lose forever the pleasure known to humanity for 500 years of taking a stroll up and down the aisles of someone else’s brain by perusing their bookshelves. Gone will be the guilty joy of spending a rainy afternoon at a cottage with the remnants of someone else’s childhood: their Nancy Drews, their 1970s  National Geographics. Without bookshelves, you will never know the warning signs contained in the e-reader of your handsome date–you will not know for months that he is reading  The Secret and  Feng Shui for Dummies, even if you stay over. You will never be able to ask, as casually as you can, ‘Did you like this?’ as you pull down, as if fascinated, Patrick Swayze’s autobiography.”

I’ve seen this position expressed a number of times.   Digital books and the loss of the public nature of the physical artifact will result in the loss of culture, the loss of something important, goes the argument.

This reminds me of this UK survey that says 65% of people have lied about reading a particular book.   As if people haven’t placed books on their shelves that they’ve never read, just for the prestige of it.

I remember caring about what people knew I read and I read classics. Everything from Beowulf to Odyssey, from Anna Karenina to Vanity Fair.   I’ve read everything written by Ayn Rand. I’ve read the Grapes of Wrath (and Lisa Valdez has nothing on Steinbeck’s breastfeeding scenes :shudder:).   I used to be a big poetry fan, buying collections of Tennyson, Browning, Wordsworth.

And I still   have these books but what do they tell people about me? Because all it really means is that I went through a phase where I wanted to appear well read and read and bought books that made me look erudite. Those books are but a tiny portion of my life.   I don’t think I have been greatly influenced by the books of Ayn Rand.   I do think that Homer’s plots and tropes have been ripped off for a millenium, but what of it?

The loss of a physical artifact doesn’t reduce one’s ability to get to know someone, to peak inside their brain.   It doesn’t take away the ability to interact based on a common interest in a book. In fact, that’s the whole premise of social media sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing.   Today’s free flow of information actually means that you know far more about a person than what is solely on their physical bookshelves.   You can know who their friends are, what causes they are affiliated with, if they spend too much time building virtual farms.

Technology has always changed the way we interact with others, in some good ways and in some bad ways.   The loss of a physical artifact merely means that we people have to find new ways of connecting.   The loss of a physical artifact does not automatically result in a net cultural loss unless we allow it.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

31 Comments

  1. Cara McKenna
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 05:59:36

    Lovely post.

    I’ve never had shelf insecurities because I’ve never really had a bookshelf-’not one full of books, anyhow. I have an aversion to stuff, probably because I’ve moved so many times in the last decade. Possessions equal liability to me and as wondrous as books are, they still count as clutter.

    I get 95% of my books from the library, so unless people are peeping at my bedside table on a weekly basis, what I read is a mystery (unless they track me down on Goodreads-’perhaps the new show-off shelf?) whether it’s pure pompous genius or the smuttiest of the smutty. The few books I do own are the ones I’ve read over and over, and they’re not exactly showpieces. A bunch of Sedaris, Valley of the Dolls, writing how-tos, The Long Walk, Clement Freud’s autobiography… If Hello magazine came a-callin’ today I’d be in trouble.

    So although some people fear they’re going to be losing the window into their ravenous literary souls (or the literary soul they want people to think they’ve got) I’m not convinced. The lofty folks with the room for it will still shell out for titles to accessorize their self-image (shelf-image?) and the rest will head to Goodreads.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 06:57:44

    Spot on. I did a history of art and English degree, so I have most of the classics and a shelf full of art history books. I did an MBA, so I have a shelf of business textbooks. They cost so much, I can’t bear to part with them, and they might come in useful one day (oh yes!) When I needed to do my annual accounts, I didn’t pick up my well worn copy of “Accountancy made simple” (and there’s a misleading title, if ever there was one), I got me an accountant.
    From my shelf of doll’s house books they can tell something, but hey, everybody needs a hobby. But the rest is a hodgepodge. I have lots and lots of books on the eighteenth century, a ton of stately home guidebooks, but anyone not interested in history will go “meh.”
    If anyone asks, they can look at my ereader to see what I’m reading now, but why should they when they can just ask me?
    Before I turned to ebooks, I had a big turnover in cheap paperbacks. I got rid of them as fast as I bought them, with a few honourable exceptions. To be honest, it’s a relief not to have to do that anymore.
    And I still buy paper books from time to time, mostly non fiction.
    What my English class taught me was that while there is some great writing that should be read, I have a great need in my life for the happy ending. It isn’t just snobbery, and sometimes books like Anna Karenina suffer from that, as people think they shouldn’t read it because it will be boring, but after Jude the Obscure, I wanted something to read for fun. Ask Jude what fun is, and he’ll answer with a hollow laugh.

  3. Joanne
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 07:16:40

    I suspect that Mr Smith wrote his article tongue in cheek and then went over to the dark side to prove he’s witty.

    It’s more common that most of us who are addicted to reading have both ‘real books’ (the ones we actually own) and ebooks (the ones that we don’t own, can’t share, can’t donate).

    My bookshelves runnith over and I wouldn’t have it any other way but I don’t want anyone taking them off the shelves. DONT TOUCH. That’s what you’ll learn about me from my bookshelves.

    Most of my many ebook purchases over the last ten years have been ‘disposable’ books. Ones that I wouldn’t have given shelf space to anyway OR -back in the really, really good old days of ebooks- books that weren’t available in print.

    Hopefully humans will always have the pleasure of reading; how they do it might change.

    And yes, Mr Smith, if you store your books for more then a month they mate and reproduce. The little buggers.

  4. dick
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 08:16:31

    I have little knowledge about e-books. Assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that reading them is much like reading a computer screen onto which I’ve downloaded a book or two, I’ve rejected them; my eyes don’t like it, won’t take it, and burn to make me stop. I think though, that the gentleman’s attack on them is a poor choice of battlefield. I submit that e-books deprive readers of other kinds of pleasures. There is physical pleasure in holding a book while absorbing it, a tactile relationship to the author and his words; there is the almost unholy glee provided in making marginal comments about lousy writing, poor characterization, or a glitch in the plot; there is even the physical and emotional satisfaction of tossing the book aside if the story bores, doesn’t suit, or irritates. E-books, it seems to me, are much like x’s and o’s at the end of a love note–representatives for the real things, an extra bit of separation.

  5. Deb
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 09:22:18

    I took a look at my bookshelves, trying objectively to get a bead on the type of person I am. I couldn’t. I’ve got Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking” shelved next to Jenny Crusie & Bob Mayer’s “Don’t Look Down”. Next comes the Bible. After that, there’s “A Remarkable Woman”. I can’t remember that one at all. James Lee Burke sits next to Robyn Carr. Honestly, what kind of person is it, who places an action/romance next to the Bible? There’s no clue beyond a disordered mind perhaps.

    @dick, I used to think the same way, books are revered, something is lost on a screen. I add all the romantic feelings you describe. After turning to an ereader, not computer screen, I still feel the same way about books. It’s the written word for me, not the tactile, scent or anything else. It’s the written word. I’ve lost nothing reading from the ereader. It’s all there, painted on the screen, rather than printed on paper. I honestly don’t notice anything different. I still get lost in the book. That is what reading does, regardless of method of “transport”. All pleasure, all the time.

  6. Suze
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 09:23:08

    I submit that e-books deprive readers of other kinds of pleasures.

    Reading an ebook from my Sony 505 is MUCH more comfortable than reading from a computer screen. It’s also much more comfortable than reading from a paper book, and for me, much more physically pleasureable. It (often) weighs less, you don’t have to hold the pages open, you don’t have to use props and weights to keep it stable to read while you eat or take notes. You don’t have to twist your hands into awkward positions to hold the book just right, depending on how you’re sitting.

    Ebooks also don’t stink like somebody else’s cigarettes or perfume, don’t give me papercuts, and don’t make my fingertips dry out and crack like handling paper does.

    There’s joy to be taken in deleting crap books. Many devices allow for marginalia.

    I like your x’s and o’s imagery, it’s beautiful, but I don’t find it to be true for me.

    I’m not on a mission to convert everyone to digital, so feel free to keep reading in whatever format you like (as if you need my permission). I’m just finding the pleasures of reading paper books that you listed don’t ring true for me.

  7. Lori
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 09:31:27

    Because we all know that the writers continue to write their words on paper with quill pens?

    So many years ago before the advent of personal computers, in college we were preparing the school’s literary magazine for publication and were using a light-table. We all enjoyed the life that the screen brought to the words we were arranging. It was a special moment for those who were there: we saw at that time a physical representation of how words can have a different life in it’s representation.

    I have shelves of poetry books that aren’t replaceable nor would I wish to replace them. I have a keeper shelf of books that have traveled with me from home to home. And I have my ereader that right now is holding 68 titles which includes the Loretta Chase backlist which I believe will be amongst my new keeper shelf.

    And if you’ve ever sat and been able to read while not having to hold a book open but rather just hit a button to turn a page then you know what glee is.

    I like both. I don’t plan to stop buying physical books. But I do intend to buy a lot less.

  8. Camille
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 09:52:04

    I do love browsing shelves, in the library, at garage sales, in my own house (where I am wont to forget what I have), and I don’t think that will go away soon, though I’m sure it will gradually diminish and become something for “book geeks” to do in archives and antique shops.

    But I think the social aspect of seeing what others read has already broadened out. People talk and tweet and blog about not only the books they own, but those they borrowed. Every mention – the remnants of influence those books have had – is recorded for posterity once they’ve hit the internet. There’s no hiding that book you used to love, and there’s no forgetting that wonderful book you read once and then lost.

  9. Marianne McA
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 09:54:38

    I’m inclined to be on Russell Smith’s side over this. Yes, I love my Sony, and I wouldn’t want to be arguing the case that ebooks will result in a net loss of culture.
    But at the same time, it’s just true that I feel at ease when I go to a home packed with books. It’s true that I remember the thrill of finding the entire series of The Secret Seven in my uncle’s house (my mum banned Enid Blyton) leading to an orgy of reading that holiday, or ancient copies of Bunty annuals at my aunt’s – a flat in Aix en Provence housed a huge, entirely unexpected, stash of old M&B – a friend’s house in Dublin with such an eclectic selection of reading material that you could love him just for that.
    Wouldn’t say, for the most part, I study bookshelves for clues to people’s characters, but I feel at home when I see a collection of books. I can imagine that’s to do with my age, and a younger generation accustomed to ebooks won’t have the strong and happy associations I have with the physical article. But for myself, if bookshelves disappear, I’ll miss them.

  10. locked
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 11:37:39

    Can’t we all just get along?
    I don’t own an e-reader. They have never appealed to me, as I crave the tactile feeling of a paper book (and I may have a slight obsessive hoarding tendency with books that just can’t be sated with a computer file).
    However, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else their e-reader. I figure, as long as people are reading, that’s a good thing. Why beat each other up over the format we prefer to read in?

  11. Sandy James
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 11:54:55

    There is so much more to the evolution of ebooks than just advancing technology and whether a person can “warm up” to an ereader. I look at all the new authors who’ve been allowed to share their work who never would have been given that opportunity if only traditional publishing existed — me included. Thanks to the willingness of ebook publishers to accept and nurture new authors, there are a wealth of stories out there that might have never seen the light of day.

  12. Michelle in Texas
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 12:44:15

    Camille, I agree completely. Wandering the aisles of the library and bookstore (and my house!) is a wonderful way to spend some time. But every mention online is forever, and there are many authors I wouldn’t have tried without reading about them here and elsewhere on the internet.

    I don’t have a dedicated e-reader, but use my iPhone as a reader quite a bit. Deb mentioned the Bible above. I have 6 different versions of the Bible on my phone, some with study notes, and a couple of commentaries as well. I also have 29 books plus the dictionary. Many of these are classics that frankly were intimidating as print books. Being able pull out my phone and read a classic, or new author, or check a Scripture reference at a moments notice anywhere is great! That said, I have many, many print books I MUST keep. I can’t imagine letting them go. To me, print and digital are both great formats, and complement each other. Because although I can read the Bible anytime, anywhere, I love my old, worn copy, with tears and tape, water stains and scribblings.

  13. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 12:49:14

    But at the same time, it's just true that I feel at ease when I go to a home packed with books.

    I don’t trust someone whose house contains no books (always a major issue when I watch design shows), but I may have to get over this. I’ve switched over to an eReader for fiction, but all my non-fiction and research books are still paper (though I love the idea of my research books being searchable!)

    I recently met a guy for coffee, and the first thing we did was swap eReaders and compare books, LOL! Made for a fun first date, so all is not lost on that front.

  14. Alli Sikes
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 13:09:48

    Anyone who knows me knows I love to read. Anyone who really knows me knows that if they buy me an eReader it will either be politely returned or kept and sold on Amazon as soon as possible.
    I, like the previous poster, don’t begrudge anyone their eReader; it’s just not for me. If that’s what it takes for you to read a book, then by all means buy that damn thing and stick your nose into its pixelated, battery-powered screen. With some people I know that’s really the only way they would read–they’re too much children of the modern age, I suppose. For me, the idea of reading a book electronically is a travesty. It makes me a little sad inside to see a great work of literature reduced into a few kilobytes and displayed on a flimsy piece of metallic modernity.
    There’s something to be said for holding a paper book in my hands, for taking care to not crease the spine or bend the pages. Lying by a tree under the summer sun with a book brings me a certain contentment and easy pleasure. The whole scenario would, I think, lose something if the book was electronic, because the very format of my entertainment is a passive but constant reminder that my pleasant interlude is just that, an interlude, and that phone calls and school await me when my time is up.
    Call me sentimental. Books, after all, don't crash, and don't have to be charged. Sure, they're bulky, less durable, cause the chopping down of trees, blah blah blah. But they're conversation starters, they're tangible, and (let's face it) prettier than eBooks. It's all about preference, I suppose. So long as you're reading, I'll do my best to not be picky about how you're reading.

    Oh, and I've read 1984 :)

  15. Deb
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 13:56:01

    @ Alli: “If that's what it takes for you to read a book, then by all means buy that damn thing and stick your nose into its pixelated, battery-powered screen. With some people I know that's really the only way they would read-they're too much children of the modern age, I suppose.”

    Wow, just wow. First, I’m 55yrs old. I’ve been an avid reader since I was 14yrs. old. Second, I bought the “damn” things because bookstores were failing to stock books by lay down dates. Don’t believe me, check comments from Jenny Crusie’s post from release day for Wild Ride. Like me a year ago, you couldn’t buy the book because it wasn’t out on the shelves yet.

    You can’t get that tactile feel when you can’t buy the book, it doesn’t look pretty sitting in boxes on a loading dock.

    You may not begrudge me my ereader, but you sure have an unbelievable prejudice against them. That’s fine, each to his/her own. But don’t judge a book by it’s cover, nor the person reading it on a device you think is a travesty.

  16. MaryK
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 15:17:04

    As if people haven't placed books on their shelves that they've never read, just for the prestige of it.

    Or put all the ‘acceptable’ books on the public shelves and the ‘unacceptable’ books on the private shelves. ;D

    I love books and enjoy organizing and fondling them. I’ve even developed a thing for children’s books and started collecting interesting ones.

    But I also love ebooks. There’s a lot of e-published only writing that I’d miss out on if I didn’t keep up with the times.

    It’s possible to enjoy and value both formats just as it’s possible to enjoy both live performances and CDs or DVDs.

  17. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 15:34:53

    @Alli Sikes:

    There's something to be said for holding a paper book in my hands, for taking care to not crease the spine or bend the pages.

    Goodness. You’d hate my paper book library. Hardbacks. Beat-up, dog-eared, highlighted, marked in the margins, food stains, water-damaged, with torn jackets, having suffered heaping piles of abuse–because I love them. I appreciate a book has been so loved it looks like it’s gone through a war or two in a soldier’s pack.

    Can’t do that with ebooks, nosiree. BUT with my ebook reader I can stand it up to read while I’m eating, lie in bed on a cold night under the covers without the need for a flashlight or a book light that will bother my husband, read in the car in the dark, read with one hand or the other (with no need for both), and never have aching hands from holding a book open. If I like the ebook enough, I buy the hardback (or whatever paper edition) and set about abusing it.

    What are these sacred pristine things people speak of? The only paper books I have that look like that are only “meh” to me and end up in the pile to go to the UBS.

    If I go into someone’s home and see bookshelves filled with gleaming spines and pristine jackets, I may vaguely assume they’re there for decoration. Then again, I don’t go to people’s homes to scout their bookshelves. I go to visit and have a good time in pleasant company.

  18. Castiron
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 15:59:18

    Seeing great classics on someone’s bookshelf doesn’t tell me a thing about them (the books could be genuinely loved, or school texts the person’s never bothered to unload, or bought for show), but seeing a familiar non-trendy book on someone’s shelf tells me we share at least some reading interest. Seeing shelves full of romance novels, or mystery novels, or science fiction, or texts on obscure languages, or comic collections, or a mix of genres — that tells me about someone. (Seeing no books at all tells me about someone too, especially if I do see stacks of CDs or DVDs.)

    Sure, I could look at their social networking page, but if I’m getting to know them by their bookshelf, I probably don’t know them well enough to know whether they’re on a book social networking site (and even if they are, it might not be one I’m on).

    And on the other hand, there’s plenty of other ways to get to know someone, and I’ve been on author fansites long enough to know that someone who shares my love of an author’s work may be someone who I can’t stand. So on balance I fall on the “so? it’s not the end of the world” side.

    (In twenty years, though, I think whether there’s print books at all on someone’s shelves will say a lot more about them than what those books are.)

  19. Mireya
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 16:18:45

    To be honest, when people come to my house (and this has been since I was in high school) the only comment I get is “wow, you have a LOT Of books”. This argument does not fly at all for me, and since I use a handheld device, I can still sit on my supercomfy recliner and get lost in a book even if it’s not in print, hence, I haven’t “lost” that “physical” feel of holding a book. I don’t feel that I am losing anything “special”, and actually, I get a kick out of opening my 8 gigabyte flashdrive and looking at the thousands of ebooks that I’ve accumulated over the past 7 years since I discovered books in electronic formats (bear in mind I reviewed for years and most books I got for review were in eformats. I don’t destroy ebooks unless they are corrupted). To me, the pleasure of accumulating books is for me, not for show, not to impress, not for anyone else. I like to see lots of books, be it in the house or my computer. Period.

  20. MaryK
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 16:21:29

    @Mireya:

    the only comment I get is “wow, you have a LOT Of books”.

    Yeah, me too. And it’s not in a good way.

  21. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 16:25:17

    @Mireya: the only comment I get is “wow, you have a LOT Of books”.

    @MaryK: Yeah, me too. And it's not in a good way.

    Me three.

  22. Suze
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 17:20:53

    I don't trust someone whose house contains no books (always a major issue when I watch design shows)

    What bugs me on design shows is books for show and tchotchkes. They build shelves and fill them up with crap that has absolutely no functional use at all, including a few cool-looking books. No idea what the books are, and no indication that the design victims will ever do anything with them but dust them.

    The question I keep coming back to, regardless of format, is: if people don’t read, what do they do?

  23. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 17:51:49

    How about the advice to remove all the dust jackets and arrange the books in piles according to the color of their spine? I just about plotzed the first time I saw that done (and I was ready to weep when they did it to my favorite USB as an art project).

  24. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 17:52:23

    UBS, not USB. *sigh*

  25. Mireya
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 18:22:53

    @Suze: They Tweet and text (with a crapload of typos and misspellings and while driving), or get hooked on FB and type in all caps.

    Then again, that involves reading too.

    Sorry, I just had to say that after reading the umpteenth FB comment written in all caps argh!

  26. Ridley
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 20:50:06

    @MaryK:

    “Or put all the ‘acceptable' books on the public shelves and the ‘unacceptable' books on the private shelves.”

    Oh my, I am dreadfully guilty of that. There are no mass markets in the living or dining room. Those are hidden.

    But our books in those rooms are generally conversation starters. McSweeney’s Book of Lists. The Jell-O Cookbook circa 1950s. Interior Desecrations. Horrifying children’s cookbooks from the 1970s (banana + mayonnaise + walnuts = walking banana salad. /shudder). And so on.

    I read almost exclusively on an ereader, but that’s because the things I read the most of aren’t conversation starters. The few times I read ebooks that are truly amazing, good or bad, I generally buy a paper copy. I still love paper books for the fun of passing odd or interesting ones around.

    TV hasn’t killed film. Mp3′s haven’t killed vinyl. Ebooks won’t kill paper books.

    Goodreads, Library Thing and the book blogosphere notwithstanding, the book lover’s culture is not going anywhere. It’s just adding a format.

  27. Kaetrin
    Mar 21, 2010 @ 23:34:24

    Goodreads, Library Thing and the book blogosphere notwithstanding, the book lover's culture is not going anywhere. It's just adding a format

    Yeah – that.

  28. Clare London
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 02:49:25

    Excellent post. I’ve never considered that e-books should/could replace physical books, and assumed they’d co-exist for many people. The pleasures of ownership can be very different, and extend beyond the story. More formats=more fun!

    But what a good point about not allowing ourselves to be restricted by the physical. Yes, I love browsing bookshelves, but yes, I’ve also bought and displayed a lot of books I’ve either never opened or never will again after the first read.

    It’s all about adding value. There are a lot of my books I *do* read and love having around in physical form, but I’ve also now got a whole lot more on my ereader that I can take with me now when I travel. Things are changing and I want to get the best from that for myself.

    The growth in the digital world, IMO, has also brought *new* connections, with fellow readers, new reviews and a whole bunch of other rewarding reading/writing-related events and discussions that I’d probably never have found if I’d just been at home with my bookcase :).

  29. Mina Kelly
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 05:05:29

    The thing about LibraryThing is it really alerts you to how many books you own you haven’t read. I end up competing with myself to try and keep the number below 40; especially as it makes me very conscious that people know know I haven’t read these books! I made an effort to finish any “show-off” books almost as soon as I signed up, but I think it is telling that there are some books that have been “to read” for a couple of years now, while new books barely graze the category.

  30. Merrian
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 22:11:38

    I wonder how we can tie our e-book collections in with our social media usage? I was thinking of a website called artmagick.com

    http://www.artmagick.com/albums/

    Artmagick covers the symbolist and pre-raphealite art movements with poetry and images of pictures and paintings that are out of copyright. People can build public albums by selecting the pictures that mean something to them and then link to the album from their blog. Others can put up comments on the album…

    Why not something like this for our e0book libraries?

  31. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Pink fluff of linkity (I have no idea what that means, either)
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 02:03:06

    [...] Nice post over at Dear Author reacting to the complaint that ebooks and “the loss of the public nature of the physical artifact will result in the loss of culture.” [...]

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