On my last trip, I did something unthinkable. I didn’t take any books. Print books, that is. I did have a number of ebooks on my tablet, including two that I acquired especially to read on this trip. One I borrowed from the library’s ebook catalog; the other I purchased.
My conversion to ebooks has been gradual. Except in cases when it’s the only way I can obtain a book I’m interested in, I seldom read ebooks except when traveling. Then the convenience is hard to beat. A slim, lightweight tablet versus pounds of books. The ability to enlarge the print when the lighting is poor, and to read without using those horrible glaring lights they have on airplanes. By syncing my tablet with my phone, I can continue to read on it during the twenty minutes of takeoff and immediately after when laptops and tablets must be stowed away.
Another advantage to ebooks is obvious. It cost me $13.99 to buy an ebook copy of the literary bestseller I took on the trip. If I’d sprung for print it would have cost me seven dollars more. And unless I wanted to take a chance that I could find a copy in an airport bookstore, I would have had order the book a few days ahead of my trip so it could be shipped to me.
On the downside, you are dependent on electricity to charge your device, while print is always there. Which why it’s good to have a back-up print book for emergencies, like when you leave your charging cord in the hotel and don’t have time to shop for a new one right away.
And there are other disadvantages. Reading an ebook is more tiring, since even though the print on the screen appears crisp and sharp, in fact your brain is smoothing out the uneven edges of the pixelated letters to make them appear that way. Also, for reading at night, the bright light of the device decreases the production of melatonin in the brain, so reading an ebook before bed is more likely to cause insomnia.
And even though the device shows you on every page what percentage of the book you’ve already read, going back to re-read a few pages in an ebook is much more cumbersome and tedious than flipping through the pages in a print book. If you’re reading a complex story with lots of characters, that can be frustrating. It’s like everything you’ve already read falls off into a void and disappears, and the only part of the book that is real is the page in front of you.
As a writer, I find this aspect of ebooks troubling. Many of my books are no longer available in print, unless you can find a yellowed copy in a used bookstore. Which means from now on, almost everyone who reads my books will be doing so in the digital format. It makes my stories that I spent hours and hours of my life creating seem like any other consumer product—a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee—to be consumed and then forgotten. My story, my words, are just ephemera.
Although from another perspective, exactly the opposite is true. My print books will eventually crumble to dust, while my ebooks could potentially live on and on forever in the digital realm.
But this potential advantage is canceled out by another aspect of ebooks. According to studies, they don’t have quite the same impact and influence that print books do. This is because print is tactile, which helps our brains create a stronger memory of what we’ve read. The physical act of turning pages, the sensation of the number of pages held in your left hand versus those in your right, the location of the words on the page—all those things help your brain store the information you’ve read more effectively. My digital stories will last longer, but they have less meaning to the people who read them.
And finally, the ease of producing ebooks means that my stories are no longer competing for readers’ attention with thousands of other books, but with literally millions. My story and vision is drowned in an endless sea of ebooks.
Ebooks are like so many things in this rapidly-changing, breathlessly expanding technological world. All these innovations have made the exchange of information easier and faster, but now the sheer volume of what we’re exposed to threatens to render the actual content meaningless.
I leave you with a quote from Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures: “We have metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on the hillside to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.” He was referring to people living through TV and film instead of experiencing life. Now we live through the reality of our handheld devices.