By Steve Donoghue
A grumpy friend of mine recently made what, for him, was a major concession in a long-standing war between us. We’ve been happily disagreeing with each other for almost a decade over the merits of e-books and e-reading. He’s consistently been holding the fashionably conservative position: that the only “real” reading is done in paper-and-ink books, that e-readers are just part of some enormous gadget-fad that’ll blow itself out in due time. His house is crammed with stacks of books in the old-fashioned way, piles of hardcovers and paperbacks teetering in piles, some of them capped with tea-saucers and cake-crumbs. The earliest geological layers of this mass, the books on shelves in actual bookcases, have been inaccessible to my friend for many years, blocked by stacks and piles and heaps of later acquisitions. He’s an entirely old-fashioned book person, the type who buys a new copy of a book he already owns because he has no chance of actually finding the copy he already owns.
He is, in other words, exactly the type of person to fight in defense of print-and-paper books, and that fight has been a good deal of tacit fun for both of us over the years. So I was surprised the other day when he grudgingly conceded that, as the years grow longer, he’s more favorably inclined toward at least one aspect of e-reading devices: the ability of the user to change the size of the print at will. He’s grown a bit tired of squinting at tiny type in some of his books, and he allows that maybe the ability to change font-sizes really is a mark in favor of e-reading devices.
I was happy, of course, at even so little a victory. But all I could think about was how many more advantages e-readers have over print-and-paper books! True, you can change the font size, but you can also change the fonts themselves – Helvetica? New Times Roman? Dozens are available instantly, entirely depending on which you prefer.
And e-readers are helpful in all kinds of other ways as well. They automatically keep your place in whatever book you’re reading – no more fumbling with bookmarks or (horrors!) dog-earing the corners of pages. They have built-in dictionaries – no more underlining, question-marking, or needing to dictionary-consult about strange words (they also have a built-in search function, which is a godsend for book critics, I assure you!).
They’re durable as well, these e-readers. Most of them are tough, stubby plastic or rubber things, ready to be stuffed into over-crowded bags or tossed onto a reading couch, and most of the later models are also waterproof – so you can read in the bathtub without worrying about destroying them. Speaking from the long experience of a reader who’s lost many a book to drowning (or mold, or silverfish), I can say this durability always makes me smile.
One other superiority is rendered all the more noticeable by the contrast: print-and-paper books are steadily declining in quality of manufacture. Have you noticed this? Their binding is cheaper and less flexible, their paper is cheaper, even their printing ink is duller and more runny. By contrast, simple market pressures have created an actual competition for manufacturers to keep improving e-readers. Their storage capacity, their charging speed, their battery life, their print sharpness, the quality of their built-in lighting … all of these things are always improving. The newest entry-level Amazon Kindle, for instance, is a hugely better device than the most expensive e-reader on the market five years ago. Imagine if printed books were steadily improving in anything like this way!
E-readers are also convenient: since they’re only running e-ink and the simplest software, they don’t need much re-charging, and more than that, they’re always handy. Needless to say, this is quite a different kettle of fish from my old friend, who has print-and-paper books he hasn’t seen in decades.
This is connected with another advantage of e-readers: they’re single devices, but they’re also entire libraries. Most of them can hold thousands of e-books, and quite a few of them have slots where you can add some kind of memory card, expanding the storage by as much as 32GB. This is room enough for five times more books than even the most peppy reader could get to in an entire lifetime. You can sort all these e-books in any way you like, find any of them with a quick, easy search, and organize them however makes the most sense. In every functional sense, my old friend is the servant of his home library, not its master. But this little plastic thing in the palm of your hand? It does whatever you tell it.
They’re unpretentious, they’re private, they’re the perfect antidote to the screen-addiction so many people feel these days, they require no dusting or shifting or heaving, and they can’t collapse shelves and rain down avalanches on lurking cats or sleeping dogs. In my experience, they tend to win over every dedicated book-person who gives them a fair try.
That hasn’t happened yet with my old friend – our merry war continues. But every little victory counts – I’m confident he’ll come around eventually. If he isn’t buried by books first.