eBooks as “Literary Sweat Pants”

“The recurring motif in cinema of a freshly finished manuscript being scattered by the wind or burned in a fire is far more savage a drama than the computer crash that modern authors contend with.” So contends Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award-winner Craig Thompson in this brief reflection on traveling with print books.

I just returned from a three-month book tour and was discouraged to see eBooks as the requisite travel accessory, the airports littered with travelers hunched over smart phones and Kindles and iPads. It’s true, Bolaño’s 2666 takes up a lot of space in your carry-on bag, but that’s the point! It’s like a pet that requires a 5am walk. The heft is a symbol of commitment —a marriage band.

I have to admit I agreed with him right up until the point where I got a Kindle for Christmas. What say you, readers?


  1. sophia says

    I agree with Mr. Thompson 100%. To my sensibilities, the “heft” is not only a symbol of commitment but an indication of substance…something tangeable. We loose so much that is important and good for us on a personal and human level by the allure of the fleeting and insubstancial which technology draws us into!!! It is changing the way our minds work by disconnecting us from our full range of senses. NOT GOOD!!!

    • Daniel Crandall says

      So it’s better to read War and Peace or Moby Dick or Great Expectations or The Gulag Archipelago (obviously, I could go on and on) in a physical book than it is on an e-reader? I thought the important thing was that one read the book, not that one got a workout while carrying it around.

      • sophia says

        You’ve missed my point completely. But since I don’t wish to discuss this further with a perfect stranger in a somewhat public forum, I’ll end my involvement with this post and further commenting.

    • sophia says

      Well Said, Dena!!! That sums up our sad state of affairs. Progress would indicate a development toward something good or at least better for the overall wellbeing of human beings. To my way of thinking, these ever changing technelogical gadgets are making us less free to be human and more & more enslaved to machines, which seem to me to be stiffling our ability to realate, to learn, to engage on a truely human level.

      • Dena says

        Verily. The single most prophetic thing I’ve ever read–well, it would tie with Benson’s Lord of the World–is E. M. Forster’s novella, The Machine Stops. Try it!

        • sophia says

          Wow! I doubt we’d find RH Benson’s works available as e-books! 😉 I actually own a copy of Lord of the World, though it’s been almost 40 years since I read it. ‘Think I’ll dig up my collection of Benson’s work and also see if I can find Forester’s novella at the library. Thanks Dena!

          • Daniel Crandall says

            Cant’ find Robert Hugh Benson’s works available as e-books? Think again.

            I did not know about Benson’s Lord of the World until relatively recently. After hearing about it, I searched for it at Gutenberg.org, found it, and downloaded it to my NOOK.

            Before the internet and the e-reader I never would have found this book unless I stumbled upon it among the dusty piles in a used book shop (not that I’m knocking used book shops. I’m still the same ole biblio-phile).

  2. Daniel Crandall says

    I’m an admitted biblio-holic. I was also an avid e-reader opponent. I simply love books, and would take several with me wherever I’d go. I never, however, thought of it as “symbol of commitment.” Instead, it was more a symbol of indecision. Furthermore, I’d never bring along something as hefty as 2666, or The Father’s Tale, or the Lord of the Rings or the Narnia books collected within a single volume.

    While my biblio-holism hasn’t changed, my animus toward e-readers has after my beloved presented me with a NOOK Tablet this past Christmas. Not only can I carry around dozens of books on this slim little device, I can read book samples all the live-long day.

    Old habit die hard. I still carry around a few ‘old fashioned’ physical books (p-books?). But I’m loving my NOOK, and do not at all think carrying around pounds of books is some symbol of my virtue.

  3. says

    You know, you could argue that if you really loved a book you would have it by heart, as ancient bards once did. Writing: what a soulless technology for silencing and embalming the human voice! I don’t really have a problem with e-readers, and I can’t see them replacing physical books. I mean, what if your e-reader gets stolen and your computer dies, and all of a sudden you have no books? And flipping around in a book is so much easier than poking a button repeatedly. And you can write on it, tear it up if you get mad at it, press flowers in it…

    Here’s what I think: if you buy a physical book, you should get the e-book thrown in for free, or for a dollar more. That gives you maximum versatility! Right now I have no desire to pay more money just so I can read a book I already own on a different device.

    The e-reader seems like it would come most in handy on a loooong vacation. Why do I need the ability to read a thousand books on an airplane when I can only finish one, perhaps two in the allotted time? Or actually… I think it would be most handy in the classroom. I could have the complete works of all the classical authors, along with a giant Latin dictionary, and I wouldn’t break my back every day!

    In short, I think the e-reader is cool, and I find it hard to understand how it could be a threat to literacy. I don’t think it will drive paper books out of existence the way cds did for tapes: you may notice that cds are still widely available even though you can download music, and that’s because a physical format always has some advantages over an electronic format.

  4. says

    I’ve really enjoyed my Kindle so far, and I think it will remain my format of choice for books that I don’t necessarily want to reread every couple of years. Technical manuals, “how-to” books, lightweight beach reading – these are perfectly suited for the portable format of an e-reader. I read somewhere (not sure where) that e-book sales can actually drive print sales, in that people who read a book in digital form often end up purchasing the print edition.

    I also like that for more heavy-duty reading, I can easily look up a reference I might otherwise have missed. Of course, a quick jaunt over to Wikipedia to learn about the Fabian Society can end up becoming a 30-minute detour, as I recently learned while reading a biography of H.G. Wells. So it’s a toss-up between the lowered attention span that is fed by the digital format and the greater access to materials that comes with portability.

  5. says

    Everybody is bringing up valid points, and I don’t have much to add. What I will say is that the exploration into e-books has only begun, and that it is not going away anytime soon. Literature is slowly being incorporated into the overall trend towards the do-it-all device: something on which we can coordinate all media and information. This has already brought and will continue to bring a set of advantages and disadvantages. As always, we must remember that it is not the tool necessarily, but the wielder of the tool to whom we must pay attention.

    I have published a short story and a novel online, and have found a powerful medium for literary expression that I might not have been able to find in traditional publishing. I can also update my works over time to perfect my vision, and any small errors I have made. Already companies are experimenting with interactive fiction on the Kindle, i.e. “Choose Your Own Adventure”.

    Be patient. We haven’t seen everything that e-books can do.

  6. Albert says

    How is an e-reader any different from a “real” book? Both are forms of technology. Your preference for one or the other is not morally binding on other people. technological advances and gadgets are rarely other than morally neutral.

    for nostalgia, nothing beats a book. for portability, nothing beats having a library in the palm of your hand. people read for different reasons. any claim that one form is better than the other is proud snobbery.

    the popularity of ebooks also enables more authors to self-publish, which can be good for the author and bad for literature in general (as the average product is lower-quality).

  7. says

    Thanks, Dappled Things, for broaching this provocative topic.

    I write as a Catholic children’s author and children’s entertainment entrepreneur involved in the production of my own series of eBooks (families, check out the Kingdom of Patria at http:.//kingdomofpatria.com).

    I also write as a former academic and lover of literature who owns a substantial collection of conventionally bound books. I love conventional books, especially of course those with superior design. I am also a fan of electronic books. I do not see why it has to be an either/or on this question. For however much I love the design of good conventional books, I love the ideas within them more. Lest we forget, “conventional” books are artifacts or “machines” just as much as ebooks are (minus the electronic components). There was a time when what we think of as print books were a novelty. Plato’s Socrates in one Platonic dialogue views even the act of writing ideas on papyrus (as opposed to pure vocal dialogue) with suspicion.

    But again, my point is not to pit one format against the other, but to encourage us all to let a thousand flowers bloom. I love the look and feel and reading experience of my first edition of P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Old Reliable.” I love the comfort of reading in bed with my Kindle, with a small electronic library at my disposal.

    Isn’t life grand?

  8. DB says

    Seems to me that “symbol” is the key word in this whole thing. If you are compelled by the symbolism inherent in carrying around a print book, then you’re being guided by a principle that’s important to you on a deeply personal level. Why in the world you’d expect anyone else to commit to your personal symbols makes absolutely no sense. Do you get annoyed with people who are in a relationship but wear no wedding ring, a symbol preferred by many? Mind your own damned business. You can’t change other people, so stop wasting your time.

  9. Mary says

    I like this article from Slate:


    For me, it comes down to nostalgia, the tangibility, the smell of the pages, the scribbles in the margins, the dedications in the front cover of the old copy you found at a used bookstore, a unique copy that you and you alone own, etc. I guess, perhaps, there are two kinds of readers: those who like to read and those who love books, who read and reread and let their eyes take in the beauty of the language on the page, the visceral experience of the power of the written word. I’m sure a person reading War and Peace on a Nook will “get as much out of it” as reading an original autographed copy of the novel, but I’m willing to bet that a person who loves books will form a deeper sentimental attachment–maybe not to the story and its characters–but to the memory of reading the book, the smell of a good read, where they were and what they drank as they read those words.

    In short, Nooks and Kindles are for those who “like to read.” And I think it’s obvious into which camp I fall . . .

    • Albert says

      I have formed strong memories of reading books on a kindle. Where I was, what I drank, the feel of the device in my hand, etc. Books in their paper format are not necessary for these memories.

  10. DeltaEchoBravo says

    I appreciate the tactile superiority of paper and pages, and I own, read, and re-read far too many books. That said, I see the ebook as a fantastic tool for enabling more people than ever before to access real literature. $100 gets you a basic ebook reader, and myriad sites such as http://www.gutenberg.org/ get you a fantastic selection of books at no additional monetary cost. These can be read on a computer screen or on the ebook reader, and while both are inferior to a material book, they are superior to no book at all. I have read “Les Miserables” on my Nook and “Don Quixote” in paper, and I love them both. It is the language and imagery that drives my reading, and when I am lost in that world I am well and truly there. The medium me is relatively inconsequential.

  11. Gabriel Olearnik says

    The new Kindle (my one is called The Furnace!) has changed my mind. The tactile nature of page flicking is replicated, and e-ink gives a very similar look to real paper, so you can read in direct sunlight. Whilst I don’t use it in the bath, it’s pretty handy for travel, and a fine supplement to my pulp library.

  12. Kate B. says

    Really, this debate reminds me of an ongoing difference of opinion in my marriage. My husband handles books with care–extreme care. No turning down corners, no leaving the book open and facedown, no giving paperbacks to small children, no small children handling dustjackets. I, on the other hand, beat the unholy snot out of my books–cracked spines, frayed edges, torn up and taped back together after living in my backpack, the works. Except that I have yet to tape the book of Esther back together after my toddler got hold of my tear-up-able (as opposed to my heirloom) Bible. But to me, the aesthetics are secondary; what matters is that all the words are there. My husband disagrees, but he’s even more a technophile than I am. For me, what the words are printed on fades out of view when I’m reading fiction–I’m too busy staring at the invented world I’m in. Paper or screen, it’s all the same. It’s just a question of how much damage my toodler can do, and how expensive is it to replace. Thus, I do not own an e-reader.