E-books: que sera, sera. (but that’s ok, as long as we’re still reading)

On: October 28, 2010
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About Stefania Bercu
I'm a Sociology graduate from Bucharest, currently located in Amsterdam and doing a masters in New Media.


One of the main challenges that the emergence of e-books has brought upon us is linked to the idea of ownership, be it the ownership of copyright or the actual feeling one gets when purchasing a book. Some argue that in order to feel that a book belongs to you, there is a need for the physical object: the smell of ink on freshly printed paper, the feeling of it in your hands, the pleasure of buying a second hand book and seeing what the owner before you found interesting enough to underline, the feeling of anguish that you get when you accidentally spill coffee on your favorite work of fiction.  Others argue that e-books do provide us with a sense of ownership, as we can manipulate the content to suit our needs: it is far simpler to use the search function in an electronic file to find a paragraph of interest for our research or to copy-paste our favorite quote and put it on our tumblr. The debate analogue-digital as far as books go is a heated one, as you can see from this rather unconventional report on this never-ending discussion.

So will e-books replace paperback books? Even though Amazon announced this summer that e-book sales have surpassed hardback sales in the US, David Pogue , technology columnist for The New York Times  is adamant about this:

„ it’s never going to happen. If you look at the history of people trying to predict the future of technology in particular, the one thing you see over and over and over again is that they overestimate the speed and they overestimate the degree of change.”

Cory Doctorow , a science fiction writer who has gained a lot of public attention for releasing his books for free on his website states that many of the readers who have downloaded a copy of his work did end up buying an actual printed copy of the book. In his article, You do Like Reading off a Computer Screen, Doctorow argues that in reading from a screen, we engage in a different cognitive style than when reading a paperback novel. In interviewing American writer and novelist Paul Theroux, The Atlantic Magazine draws attention towards the „Twitter-ization of our attention spans, and the hyperlinking of our storytelling, and the Google-ization of all our knowledge” and how this is affecting our reading habbits.

Thinking about my own experience, I agree to the fact that we approach e-reading differently than reading a printed book. When I started my Masters program at UVA, it became obvious to me that I will spend a long time reading the required literature from the screen, as this would be more cost-efficient than printing out the material, not to mention it would be the green thing to do (link) and I do find myself caring for the planet from time to time. I figured it would not be so hard to use the computer for reading, as about three quarters of the literature I used in writing my Bachelor thesis came in ebook format and I did find merit in being able to copy-paste my quotes and sources, instead of having to  type them in. Sadly, I was hit by the horrible realization that I am now blind as a bat! Reading from the computer screen is excruciatingly tiring for my eyes, so I started looking in to alternatives and, after reading reviews from people who dealt with problems similar to mine, I found that Amazon’s new Kindle would be the best choice for me. However, I did not buy the Kindle in the end, as I found that its lack of ability to connect to wireless Internet through VPN (which is required to connect to UVA’s wireless network) to be a deal-breaker for me. This is quite odd, since Kindle is a device destined to reading electronic books, so its ability to connect to wireless just added value to the gadget. But I realized that I associate reading electronic books with the act of doing immediate further research online or just resting my brain with checking my RSS feed or reading an online comic strip. I need my Wikipedia and my Google and my LOLcatz . So in the end I did not buy the Kindle and I am not printing out the material for my classes. I’m searching the market and using my faithful, beloved laptop, while raising money for laser-eye surgery when I go back home.

Do I think that ebooks will completely replace analogue books? I doubt it, although I do believe they will become a more and more integrated part of our reading habits and they will continue to shape the way in which we relate to books. There’s no saying what the future brings, but in the words of C. Doctorow, what is certain is that “there has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words”.

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