I'm happy today to point to my first contribution over at The Millions, a bookish site I've been enjoying and admiring for years: "Confessions of a Reluctant Fetishist: Keep Books Adulterated." It's a reply of sorts to a post in praise of ebooks Tim Parks wrote for the NYRB blog over a month ago--I liked the case he made for them, which I thought hadn't been made (to my eyes) very often before, but I also thought it helped me understand some reasons I still prefer printed books. I started writing it to post here, but thought it could stand a few more readers than I can usually drum up, so I'm glad Mr. Magee over there was willing to post it.
After finishing it I had a further thought, a related one though I'm not sure it would fit into the essay. As I say there, one problem with ebooks is that they don't have a spatial structure to put your idea of the book into (and no, that percentage gauge at the bottom doesn't count). It makes it nearly impossible to move back and forth quickly in a book (unless you know an exact word to search for) the way you can do so easily in a printed book (and which I realize now I do all the time when reading, especially nonfiction or anything I'm trying to reread or write about).
Now, I do at least as much reading online as I do in printed books, and I don't feel that same unmoored feeling reading online that I do with an ebook. In part I think that's because web pages have more visual structure than ebook pages: either scrolling or paging through a long web article gives you a physical sensation that nearly approximates a printed book or magazine. But online reading has a further advantage that most physical books don't have: it has a place you can point to and share. (I know--big insight into the benefits of social media!) A blog post or an online essay (or a photo of a cat) may not exist in your hands, but, perhaps even better, it exists in a consistent place for anyone else online. A URL is, importantly, an address.
But an ebook doesn't exist in the same way: it doesn't have an address you can share. In other words, it doesn't have the spatial benefits of a printed book, and it doesn't have the social benefits (which are themselves based on occupying a particular place in the virtual network) of an online piece. This came across to me most clearly when I read a Kindle Single recently, Ann Patchett's "The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life." I liked it quite a bit (I eat that sort of stuff up), and usually with something like that I'd want do something with it after I read it: poke back around in it, write about it, share it here. But I've found it hard to do. If I want to go back and look through it again, I have to work within the linear straightjacket of my Kindle to find the parts I'm looking for, without the visual memory cues of static pages to help. And if I wanted to share it with people, well, there's nothing to point to--well, except for this excerpt on Byliner.
I understand the value of not making her ebook available to share with everyone. I love that Patchett's making a buck from a lot of people downloading this cheap minibook--I hope she can use it to help support her new bookstore--and I'm happy to pay my share. But the result, when I want to work with this book and not just dispose of it after I've read it, is that it feels like it hardly exists. I can't settle down into it and wander around the way I like to with a book I've read and want to think more about, and I can't point other people to it. I imagine Tim Parks might suggest that it should live abstractly in my mind at this point, but my mind, apparently, needs a network outside itself to thrive as a reader and a rereader.