Hadley Gibson is one of the newest bloggers at Cambridge Editors’ Blog, a house organ and mouthpiece for Cambridge Editors, which perhaps not shockingly is an editorial service for hire. 1 They offer line editing, critiquing, proofreading — in short, all the services that a writer might want when making their stories their best.

One essay Gibson recently wrote is entitled “The Tangibility of Books.” It succinctly sums up an opinion I’ve heard for years from book lovers of all stripes: the physical book is superior to the e-book. It touched on Gibson’s love of reading, both as a process and as a ritual. It celebrated the heft of a book — its mass contributing, no pun intended, to its gravitas. It went on to talk about libraries — which are amazing, no doubt — and acknowledged that bibliophiles were “infiltrating the internet,” mentioning Goodreads as an example. (Note to Hadley if she happens to read this response: we’ve been on the Internet roughly as long as there’s been an Internet. USENET had rec.art.books and its many subgroups from the start— and even that was a successor to the original net.books from before USENET’s reorganization. The University of Maine’s old CSSERVE/UMNEWS service had book-oriented lists, as did NICBBS, and dozens of LISTSERVs both general and specific. The Internet started as a textual medium — naturally, readers were among its earliest adopters.) It’s a good essay. Well worth the read. Gibson’s passion for books and what they represent — physically as well as intellectually — comes out clearly.

One passage, however, leapt out at me as I read:

As an avid book collector, it is hard for me to understand how people can love reading off of screens. I struggle to even read shorter articles off of a phone or computer, and can’t even attempt to read longer pieces of work. My eyes simply can’t focus on a screen for that long. Even though many e-readers are now designed to look as similar to a page as possible, with low light settings that won’t irritate the eyes, I still like real books more.

It seems only fair that someone explain their love of e-books (as opposed to ‘physical’ books, though I would argue that digital or not, they continue to be ‘real’) to Gibson, if she truly can’t understand it.

Someone, in this context, would seem to be me.

If I’m going to explain the e-book bibliophile, it seems like I should explain my bona fides. I’ve been buying e-books dating back to the late 1990’s, though I really started getting into it in 2000, when the late, lamented Fictionwise launched. Of course, I’d been grabbing public domain books off of Project Gutenberg before that — and it’s worth noting that Project Gutenberg’s first node on Arpanet went online in 1971. E-books didn’t first appear with the Kindle. I also read and wrote for… let us just say many online fiction projects. Later on, I launched a website meant for my critical work called Websnark, which got me some minor notoriety and introduced me to my wife, which is outside the scope of this essay.

But all of the above started with my love of reading, and that was born out of physical books. And, like Gibson, I’ve been collecting them for years.

And years.

And years.

A shelf of some of my books, some of which are older than I am, and many of which were bought in the 70's. Of particular note is that classic work “half of ‘Sons and Lovers,’” by D.H. Laure.

Books came into my life from many vectors. My parents gave me some — their house has always been full of books — and bought me others after I begged. I used to love our trips down from our home in Fort Kent, Maine (also known as people live that far north? 2) because it meant we’d stop at the Bangor Mall or the Maine Mall or Mister Paperback and there would be books. I loved our school libraries. In elementary school, when my classmates were at C.C.D., my fellow Protestants and I got to go to the Library and read. (A library, ironically, run by a Nun — one of the three Sisters from the nearby St. Louis Convent who worked and taught at Fort Kent Elementary School in the 70’s and 80’s.) In high school, I tried hard to maintain honor roll (with mixed success, admittedly) so I could spend study hall in the library. The Fort Kent Pubic Library was just down the street from where I lived, and I spent hours there.

But all of those were eclipsed by the Blake Library at the University of Maine at Fort Kent — a magnificent house of books open to the public as well as to students. My parents worked at the University, and later on we lived across the street from it. Blake Library was just a usual haunt for me — a place where books on any subject could be found and read and then there were more.

I loved reading. I love reading. And as I said, my book collection grew and grew.

Therein lay the problem.

By the time I was Gibson’s age, I was living in essentially the same place she does now, doing many of the same things. I was also working at the Boston University Bookstore and Mall (“we’re not just a bookstore — we’re a mall!”) which as I recall was later bought out by Barnes and Noble. This meant I got books on discount. When I later moved to Ithaca, New York, my first job was at the Triangle Bookstore in Collegetown. This meant I got books on discount and had a credit line. My best friends in both areas were avid readers as well, and we fed each others’ habits. We devoured books and lent them and recommended them and bought them. Oh, we bought them.

I first began to figure out this was a problem when I moved to Seattle in the early 1990s. I packed up all my worldly goods in my ’86 Accord, and prepared to drive the thousands of miles to the land of lattes, microbreweries and grunge… except I didn’t pack up all my worldly goods by any stretch, because there were the books.

Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands.

And no, I wasn’t willing to donate or sell them. They were my books. I’ve always been an avid rereader, and I couldn’t very well reread a book I no longer owned, now could I? There was no way they’d fit in the car — even without the rest of my stuff they wouldn’t fit in the car — so I had to do something else.

So I mailed them west, via media mail. Many, many boxes worth. And, in the different places where I and my housemates lived in Seattle, my books went along with — a giant, ever-growing mound of space consuming my room. When I decided to move back East, I obviously had to mail them back, which even with Media Mail wasn’t the least expensive thing I’ve ever done. When I moved to the town I currently live in, I had to make several trips despite my father bringing a bunch of them over in his old truck.

I have them still — shelves and shelves of them. Naturally, my wife’s books have been added to the shelves as well. Wednesday and I have similar tastes and loves, so when she arrived her books came along with (except for the ones that needed to be shipped by ocean, for space considerations. I married well.)

It’s reached the point where I often can’t remember if I own a book or not. I know I’ve read it, mind, but was it a library book? Did it wear out or fall apart (oh yeah — I’ve read any number of books to death and rebought them.) Did I lose it somewhere along the way? I have more repeats than I’d like for any number of these reasons….

And, of course, if I’m sitting in a Doctor’s waiting room and I get an itch to read one of my books, that does me no good if it’s in my living room on a shelf. Or in my laundry room on a shelf. Or in my bedroom on a shelf. Or in a cabinet behind action figures, technically still on a shelf. All the visceral pleasure of picking up a physical book and reading it — smelling the pages, feeling the texture and heft — is completely lost if I’m not where the book is in the first place. I can hardly bring all those books with me — I can’t even fit them all in my car!

But I don’t go anywhere without my phone.

At night I like to think “Feed” and “Getting Things Done” are locked in a death struggle for digital supremacy. My money’s on “Feed.”

We’ve all heard it said that we live in the “Information Age,” but I never liked that phrase. Every era of human history has been an Information Age. The dissemination of knowledge and expression of creativity and thought has been the greatest tool humanity has ever had at its disposal. Whether it was a storyteller passing down the knowledge and legends of his people by a fire or in a square, or scribes diligently recopying books, or Gutenberg changing the destiny of humanity by setting type and making reproduction simple, we have always been defined by information — and limited in our access to it.

What’s really changed in the past thirty years isn’t the appearance of information — it’s the ready access to verification. Before we started carrying around telephones capable of looking up essentially anything anywhere, we were reliant on our memories and on the expertise of the people surrounding us. And, naturally, these things are fallible. In writing my bona fides above, for example, I put in the fact — absolute fact, mind — that I’d started buying e-books from Fictionwise in 1998. I knew this to be true. But… we live in the era of verification, so I looked up Fictionwise’s history — and discovered thereby that Fictionwise didn’t exist until 2000. My ‘fact’ was wrong, and I needed to revise. Likewise, I thought Project Gutenberg dated back to the late eighties, not the early seventies. Research used to take libraries and weeks for interlibrary loans to come in. Now? A huge amount of casual research can be performed… well, casually. We can look anything up at any time. Want to know when Dana Carvey left Saturday Night Live? Once you’d have gotten together with your friends and debated the question, with self-styled experts chiming in and arguments ensuing. I’ll admit, there was an appeal to that — it was social, after all.

It was also annoying, especially when they both turned out to be wrong. Which happened a lot. I know — I was usually one of them.

It’s true enough that we’ve lost something with the advent of ubiquitous access. But we’ve also gained something which I think is immeasurably more valuable — accuracy. If I want to know when Dana Carvey left Saturday Night Live, it takes me just a few seconds to check Wikipedia (which says he left in 1993) and confirm it with IMDB. And if that seems ridiculously trivial, it’s because it is.

And that’s amazing, because before the advent of this technology, I’d have had to go to the library and find almanacs and microfiche of newspapers to track down articles that explained all of this (or lucked out and found a book about Saturday Night Live), which a question like that rarely warranted. We now have the ability to research the silliest, most trivial questions and get them right — which also means we have the ability to research the most important questions. If I get prescribed a new medication, I can easily find out what it does in my body, how it does it, how it interacts with the medications I’m already on, what side effects are listed for it, and the anecdotal side effects that are well known by users but may not be in the paperwork. If I have a network-related task to do at work, I’m not limited to my reference guides and what might — might — be in one of the local libraries. I have documentation from the companies, and the wealth of experience of other network administrators who’ve run into the same issues I have to work from. It’s amazing broad and deep our research pool now lies, and it’s sitting right there.

Does this seem off topic? I promise you, it’s not — because what we’re talking about isn’t simply access. It’s publication. For the first time in history, Freedom of the Press is very close to free. E-books don’t simply represent access to my library. They represent my own ability to write and be read without a gatekeeper or a significant initial outlay preventing me from doing so. Anyone can write an e-book and publish it in the largest book catalogs in the world. Anyone. 3 From a library computer if you don’t have one of your own. Or from an iPad. Or from a phone.

Shall I narrow that down a bit? Okay!

Andy Weir is someone I know passingly — at least over the internet. I was a fan of and commented on his webcomic Casey and Andy often during its run. I used his tabletop RPG internet engine to run a game or two. We traded e-mail. In a science fiction story of my own, I named a ship-mounted particle beam weapon after him. Cool guy. If you ever see him running away from any kind of scientific installation, turn around and run away as fast as you can.

One thing Weir tried to do, back in the day, was break into traditional publishing. He wrote books and stories, and sent them out, and got nowhere. Ultimately, he gave up on that, went back to work as a programmer, and wrote and drew stories for his amusement and for the audience he built over time. He posted them for free on his site, and he wrote essentially what he wanted to write.

One of the things he wrote, born of his passion for science, for space, for exploration, and for disasters, was a yarn about an astronaut being stranded on Mars, and what he’d have to do to survive — especially when everything possible that could go wrong did go wrong. After a while, people wanted easier access to the story on their e-readers, so he formatted the stories so they could be sideloaded onto them. People wanted the convenience of just being able to go to Kindle’s store and grab it, so he put it on the Kindle store — begrudgingly charging 99 cents for it because Amazon insisted. It wasn’t, after all, a library.

Not long after this yarn of Weir’s entered Amazon’s top ten bestsellers’ list, Random House offered to pay him for the right to put it out as a physical book. At the same time this was happening, Weir had been contacted by Fox, who wanted to option the movie rights.

I assume Andy Weir is pretty much always prepared to put on a space suit and build things out of duct tape and burning hydrazine.

As of this writing, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, has been in theaters for one weekend. In that time, it’s made almost $55 million domestically and another $45 million internationally. In one weekend. Added on to its bestselling status in hardcover and softcover. And of course, as an ebook. This is undoubtedly the most successful hard science fiction novel of the 2010’s, at least to date, and it’s almost certainly going to enter the canon alongside books like the Foundation trilogy and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — which is all the more remarkable when we remember that fewer and fewer science fiction novels become truly canonical these days — and even fewer of those are hard science fiction.

And none of that would have existed if Andy Weir had been limited to physical book publishing. It’s questionable that he’d ever have written it in the first place, since he was doing it as much to please his online audience as not, and he gave it away until they forced him to charge for it.

I’m a writer, too. I’ve been paid for it. It’s a point of pride for me. However, my most popular work to date has been at Websnark — mentioned above — and at Banter Latte, which houses my fiction. I’ve had a few essays read by thousands of people 4 over time. On the fiction side of things, my most popular story was one called Interviewing Leather — like The Martian, a serialized story written for my audience’s approval. Like The Martian, I had people clamoring for e-book and “dead tree” versions in the wake of its completion. Unlike Weir, however, I didn’t get around to doing that story yet. I never claimed to be smart.

I have published a few of my stories at Amazon and Smashwords (as well as Kobo, Nook, Oyster, Scribd and others) however, and am working on more. And they’ve brought in some money — a bit here, and a bit there. But almost more importantly, they’ve been read by people.

And that’s amazing. It’s intoxicating.

And it wouldn’t happen in a world without the digital book. With digital, I’m free to publish what I want when I want, and gather as much of an audience as I’m willing to work for and able to keep. There has never, ever been a point in history when this is true before now. Freedom of the Press has always meant “the freedom of the guy who owns the press to choose whether or not he wants to publish your book” before.

But, and this is an important question… so what?

Every modern I.T. worker’s office is supposed to have shelves of books, trivia games, a few classic RPGs, a Douglas Adams book, and too much dust. It’s an industry requirement.

All of the above is true, and amazing, and awesome. But… and this is an important ‘but…’ none of it actually answers Gibson’s question. It doesn’t explain why someone might not only be willing and prefer the e-book experience to the physical book. Even the point about access — the ability to actually get to your book whenever you want to get to your book — only extols one of the virtues of the format. It doesn’t explain my preference.

And let’s be clear. I prefer e-books to physical books at this point. I actively prefer e-books to physical books at this point. If a book isn’t available as an e-book, it’s far less likely that I’ll buy it.

So why?

Lots of reasons. Let’s take them in no particular order.

Convenience: The access point rolls into this one, but it’s not comprehensive. E-books are convenient. If I want to buy a book, I can do so almost anywhere at almost any time and then just start reading it. If I want to reread a book I can just start rereading that book. If I want to borrow a book from my local library, thanks to various programs I can do so from my office and just start reading it — with no chance of late fees, I would add. I’ve been a subscriber to both Oyster and Scribd before (trial subscriptions used to come with publication) and when I was I could pick and choose books for free/no extra charge and just read them, whenever and however I wanted — it was like being in the Boston Public Library all the time.

But the convenience extends beyond simple acquisition and access — if I’m reading a book, that book follows me. I can start reading the book on my phone when I have a few minutes, then pick it up on my computer right where I left off, then back on my phone later, then on my Kindle (I have a first generation Kindle — still works great) at home, then on my Nexus tablet or my school iPad…

You’ve figured out there’s a lot of gadgets in my life. The real point is clear, though: wherever I go, my progress in a book goes with me. I can pick it up where I left off trivially.

This leads me inexorably to point two…

I believe you’ve met my friend “Half of Sons and Lovers.” He’s right here, next to “what did you do to that copy of Time for the Stars, Eric?”

Security and durability: I’ve lost a lot of books in my day. I’ve ruined others, whether through dropping in water or reading them until the spine gave out or what have you.

But I’ve never lost an e-book.

Even those e-books I bought from Fictionwise back in the day have cheerfully followed me. They’re living in my Nook account right now, plus I downloaded copies of them (they’re even on my Kindle, which still amuses me because I am easily amused). Using tools like Calibre I’ve been able to maintain my digital library — hundreds of books, at this point, just like my physical library — over any number of technical changes and time.

My favorite example of this is Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein. This was the first straight up non-kid’s speculative fiction I ever read — and in the 70’s, “kids’ science fiction” meant “ridiculous” more often than not. As I’ve grown my tastes, morals, ethics and understanding of the world has changed and evolved… and by rereading Starship Troopers I don’t just get a chance to re-enjoy a story I truly love — I get to gauge my own personal and philosophical evolution through my response to the work. The middle aged liberal writing this essay responds to Starship Troopers significantly differently than the 19 year old left-libertarian did. Both of them really love the book, though.

I’ve probably bought five or six copies of this book over time. Wear and tear, loss, theft, really cool new cover art… what have you. Well, I don’t promise to leave it on the shelf if a new edition has really cool cover art, but since I bought my Kindle copy I’ve never lost it, damaged it or had it stolen. It’s always there. And by ‘there’ I mean ‘wherever I happen to be on any device.’

It even slots into my work life. I can have a book in a window on my computer — reference material or fiction or whatever — and flip to it with a glance without needing to have it take up space on my desk. They’re just there.

Comfort: This one may get me some flack. E-books are easier and more comfortable to read in my experience than physical books.

I know, I know. Everyone knows computer screens aren’t anywhere near as easy to read text on than a physical piece of paper. They know this despite the fact that millions of people read text on computer screens every day, and as a result screens have gotten better and better at presenting information in a comfortable and clear manner while books are… books. Everyone knows that screens are harder to read despite being able to tailor the experience to your needs trivially, and adjust them to changing conditions, while books you’re locked into vagaries of fate and lighting conditions. Everyone knows that screens are harder to read, period, end of story. Articles get written about it. People repeat it. It’s true, damn it. It’s true.

Except it’s so not. At least not for me.

As I get older and my eyes betray me I find I need more contrast and light to read as I always have. I can do this on a screen — especially a backlit screen. I can adjust the font on the fly. The pages never yellow. The ink never fades. I’m significantly less likely to develop eyestrain with a backlit screen than I am with a physical book — and yes, my glasses are up to date.

What’s more, my whole life I’ve read in bed. I love reading in bed. Rolling over, holding books out, angling, making sure I have the light, putting the book next to me… but now, the book glows. It’s so much easier to find the most comfortable position to lie in and hold the reader now.

And on the subject of the book glowing — I’m a married man, now. I can’t always leave my light on if I want to read a book — not without negatively impacting the other person in the room, and that’s a nasty thing to do.

But with an e-reader, I can cheerfully keep reading without adding significant light pollution to the room. I can change it up — go white text on black, say — if I’m needing a change for any reason.

None of this even touches on the bulk of a lot of books. In her essay, Gibson touched on the mass of a physical book — how it feels like it has heft and knowledge, whereas a thin e-reader just doesn’t.

I’ll turn that around — books are bulky. They take up way too much space, especially if the publisher likes clean whitespace on their pages with wide margins and line-spacing. My father’s paperback copy of Benjamin Franklin by William Isaacson is nearly 7″x9″x2″ and weighs just shy of two pounds — otherwise known as “a chunk of space in my backpack.” My copy of Benjamin Franklin’s weight can’t be perceived by human senses. I don’t count the weight of the phone any more than I count the backpack — though it’s worth noting I don’t need the backpack to carry my phone. As for reference books — don’t even get me started on the average networking reference’s size. It’s like we’re trying to impress people with our book mass. Haven’t we outgrown that?

To go back to access again — when I’m in the field and need to look up switch specs, it’s nice to not have to carry around the physical manual. Those things are big.

Price: One of the projects I want to get around to is live blogging my way through the Modern Library 100, from bottom to top. I’ve read a good number of them already, of course — I do have an English degree — but the ones I haven’t I really should read and the ones I have could stand for a re-read.

Well, #100 on the list is The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. 5 If I want to read it for this… hm. Well, first off, let’s see if my school’s library has it. Oo! Yes they do! Score! It’s even in the large type edition to be kind to my aging eyes. And it’s… out.

Seriously? Someone else at this school is reading The Magnificent Ambersons? Well, okay. I could go to the town library — I’m sure they have it — but that won’t happen today. I could buy it from Amazon for about five bucks and have it shipped free to arrive on Thursday. If I’m willing to spend ten bucks I can drive down to Portsmouth and get it today.

On the other hand, if I want the e-book… it’s free and right there. Heck, even Amazon Kindle has a free edition, so it’s one click and I just have it. (Which I just did, because why not?) But if they didn’t I could always get it from Project Gutenberg for free — heck, these days they have one-click links to drop things in your Dropbox or Google Drive, which is about as simple as buying a Kindle book at Amazon as far as installation goes.

Ten bucks plus gas, or five bucks plus time, or free and now. Dang, man.

Even books that aren’t in the public domain tend to be less expensive as e-books. #99 on the list is The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy. That’s not in the public domain! And, looking quickly just at Amazon, it looks like I can buy it for just shy of $14 in paperback, or just shy of $10 as a Kindle e-book. Now, I’m sure I could find it used somewhere or find it at the public library (our school library, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t have it. I may need to donate it to them this year) but for less money than the paperback new I could just start reading it. Which is, after all, the point.

Note that I’m not including Scribd or Oyster or Kindle Unlimited in these assessments — but if someone gets one of those subscriptions… well, dang, man. That’s the ballgame for a lot of this stuff. I doubt there’s anything on the Modern Library #100 that isn’t available to read on any one of those services as part of the subscription fee. I already subscribe to Google Play music so that I can have infinity free music — doing the same for books is pretty much a no brainer when you’re doing a project like this.

Cool Factor: I can read books on a phone. That’s pretty cool.

So, does that cover everything? Will Hadley Gibson read my rebuttal, gnash her teeth and concede defeat by my stunning logic and occasional jokes?

No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. None of this changes her opinions or her experience — her opinions and experience are correct, from her point of view. But maybe they’ll help her understand why they’re not my truth.

That said, there’s one other factor to consider in all this.

What is a book — a ‘real’ book — anyway?

Philosophy is always a dangerous subject — especially when people aren’t expecting the philosophical. A question like “what is a book?” seems like it should have a really easy answer — like, say, from a dictionary, which is a kind of book.

But philosophy sneaks up on you.

What is a book? A real book?

On one level, it’s deceptively simple. A book is a textual work — fiction or nonfiction — that forms a complete purpose. A dictionary goes from A-Z (or some subset) defining terms. A biography of John Stark goes over the main events of Stark’s life, giving a narrative sense to his evolution as a person while illustrating his place in history. A novel tells a fictional narrative typically through the experiences and perceptions of the characters. A coffee table book sits on a coffee table and tells people you’re very hip and with it.

The last bit is an obvious joke, but it also underscores the issue. Can you have a coffee table e-book? Or is a coffee table book definitively physical?

This brings us back to the other level of the question “what is a book?” A book is a collection of sequential pages, generally but not exclusively made of paper, bound together into a single unit that is designed to present the sequence of the book in order. That’s pretty unambiguous, right? It allows for hardcover, or softcover, or even something like scrolls or metal plates. It covers blank books alongside books laden with information.

But what constitutes ‘binding?’ Does a file format count? If I read a book on my phone, I flip through the pages in order — isn’t that as much a book by this definition as a physical collection of paper and cardstock?

I honestly don’t know. I honestly don’t think we know, as a culture. And that’s the core not only of viewpoint disparity like mine vs. Hadley Gibson, but a huge amount of argument in the intellectual property world. It’s well known that you can sell a book to a used bookstore — though publishers have tried for years to make such a thing illegal, because that’s actually selling the content of the book, which they reserve unto themselves contractually. Seriously — look up the court cases sometime. But book an afternoon or two to do it in. This has been going on for a while.

The same kind of arguments hold for libraries. Do libraries actually have a right to exist? They’re giving people the content of books — and the knowledge and experience of those books — for free. Doesn’t that violate the author’s right to get paid for those books? (Or, more to the legal point, the publisher’s right to get paid for them.) To someone on the outside of these arguments, they almost sound ludicrous, but there’s been a lot of jurisprudence surrounding this — and really, it only died down when publishers had it soak in that libraries lending a given book actually statistically increases sales of that book.

Apparently I own this paper, this cardboard, this laminate and this ink. The actual shapes and patterns of the letters, on the other hand….

At the same time — if I can sell my physical copy of John Stark: Maverick General to a used bookstore or on eBay, why shouldn’t I be able to sell my legally purchased e-book the same way? Sure, we’d need to have the infrastructure to revoke my reader’s ability to read a given book and assign it to someone else… but that ability’s already built into most e-book infrastructures. It’s how I can borrow e-books from the library, or lend a Kindle book to a friend. The system knows how to do this stuff.

So why not let me transfer that book to someone else — even if that someone else is Twice Sold Tales?

What is a book?

For a lot of people — and I’m assuming Gibson is among them — the act of reading a book is a ritual that involves all the senses. The tactile feel of the pages, the heft, the smell of the paper — it’s all a part of the experience of a book. When she says that she can’t understand how someone can prefer to read books on a screen, she’s speaking from that holistic experience. Your e-reader doesn’t change. The pages don’t rustle (unless you have an app to that effect, but that doesn’t really count). The iPad smells… like your iPad. And every time you read a new book it’s exactly the same physical experience, whether you’re reading Tolstoy or Stephanie Meyer. It would be like eating food with your nose plugged — you’re taking in the same food, but you’re missing out on so much.

For me, and others like me, the act of reading a book is the act of experiencing the content of a book. The text is the most important aspect — and so long as you get the text in a clear, comfortable manner the medium it comes in doesn’t matter. I’m not there to smell the book, I’m there to read and experience its narrative, and that’s happening in my mind’s eye.

They’re mutually contradictory positions, made all the worse by the fact that they’re both correct.

In another article Gibson wrote for the site, Gibson notes both her frustration with and excitement over technology as its changing the worlds of literature and communication, especially when it comes to… well, methods of writing:

Even though I have grown up using many forms of technology, I am by no means incredibly adept at it. I can get by, and can usually figure out how to do what I need to with technology, but I have always been a strong lover of the hand written word. In fact, I have always preferred to take notes in actual notebooks, and not on computers, which Dr. Weiner and I have in common.
In a world where the hand written word is slowly becoming extinct, technology is taking over with websites, e-mails, and even blog posts like this! The silver lining though, is that technology has enabled the written word to become much more widespread, and people are communicating through writing much more than ever before. Be it through text messages, Facebook messages, e-mails, or even twitter, the written word is incredibly prominent and I personally would argue that literacy is on the rise more that ever!

Setting aside the definition of technology for a more pedantic essay, 6 I can see where Gibson is coming from — though I expect she’s more adept than she realizes. Most people are. But I understand — there’s a visceral element to taking notes by hand, to scribbling in a notebook, rather than using a keyboard and the very different skillset of typing. It’s more intimate. There is some suggestion it helps improve retention.

I mostly mention this because I’ve got a new phone on order. A Samsung Galaxy Note5, in fact. Which comes with a stylus. And which allows the user to pick up the dark phone and just start writing on the screen without having to launch an app. I don’t know if Gibson will love it or hate it.

What is a handwritten note, anyway?

1. Full disclosure requires I also mention that Hadley Gibson is my niece.

2. Of course, my wife Wednesday is Canadian. From her nation’s point of view, Fort Kent is that quaint southern border town a few miles away from Edmundston.

3. And naturally, by “anyone” I mean “anyone in an industrialized country.” But this same technology has the capacity to close the gap between the first and third world’s educational systems more rapidly than most ever dreamed possible. Which doesn’t suck.

4. My wedding proposal to Wednesday has been viewed by — at last count — 1.6 million, but that doesn’t count for these purposes.

I’m still going to brag about it, of course. http://www.websnark.com/archives/2007/01/submitted_witho_1.html is the original, or you can see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiRgI3K9OeE.

It’s a side-note. Shilling is acceptable.

5. And seriously — how awesome a name is BOOTH TARKINGTON?

6. You can argue that paper grows in trees, if not on them, but ballpoint pens certainly don’t….

Eric Burns-White has been writing on the Internet since the 80’s. He may be the kind of uncle who will overwrite a piece in response to his niece’s concise and well written essay. His fiction can generally be found at Banter Latte. His essays and other stuff sometimes show up at Websnark.

This article was reprinted with permission from its original appearance on Medium.com. All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent. You have captured my experience exactly. I love physical books, too but as the book avalanches grew and the fear my wife had of dying from book shelf collapses, the digital revolution occurred. Since I’m basically addicted to the *content* of a book, the form is the least important. To get the feel, smell, etc. of the physical book you need only a few, but for content you (at least us readers) need content and I can access my entire library of over 5,000 books from my pocket anywhere. I can find and sample new authors from anywhere. I can research information while in the middle of a page without getting up. I can even listen to the book I am reading while mowing the lawn and have the location where I leave off synced to the spot in the book. If that isn’t miraculous I don’t know what is.

  2. @ecw0647: Hear, hear—in regard to both space-saving and TTS! Ayn Rand, yes, despite my aversion to her worldview, accompanied me on a few walks. Did you ever get your wife into the reading? I succeeded with mine. Hence we enjoyed double protection against bookshelf collapses. Meanwhile congratulations on your 5000-book virtual library. What are you doing to back it up? 😉

  3. @David. I guess I’m too naive or trusting to worry about backing up except for my Nook books (not very many, only about 100 or so.) I doubt if Amazon will go belly up in my lifetime and their ecosystem is so much stronger than anyone else’s. I’m an inveterate note-taker and having highlights go to a website where I can cut and paste quotations for reviews is invaluable and a huge time saver. I rather like the idea Amazon can replace a book with a corrected copy. My wife is a constant reader and always has been. In fact, one of the things that drew her to my attention (we met as camp counselors 50 years ago this year) was that she was reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Beauty AND brains.) She has her own Kindle and Amazon account, but buys a lot of YA paper books (she’s a YA author) so she can then donate them to my daughter, a middle-school librarian. I’m the geek so I find myself reading on laptops, too.

  4. @David. P.S. A more interesting question might be the transference of my (our) ebook collections after we die. Software has really taken a chuck out of the “first-sale-doctrine” but I’m hoping that legislation will fix that hole in EULA agreements so that you “own” your ebooks. That problem makes me very reluctant to pay more than $10 for an ebook and I track prices through eReaderIQ. For the time being I have my ebook accounts and passwords in the safe deposit box with POAs for my son. He”s not much of a reader so I really have no idea what might ha[pen to my “investment.”

  5. @ecw0647 — you mention backing up the Nook. Amusingly, all my old Sony, eReader, Palm and Fictionwise content ended up primarily in the Nook (with secondary backups because I’m paranoid). So far, as providers have gone under, other providers have gotten their libraries and transferred their materials.

    So far.

  6. @David. Good article. DRM is certainly a huge problem although I’m not totally convinced that Amazon has to take the blame. I suspect they had to surrender that to get Kindles and the early ebook movement off the ground. Publishers remain totally paranoid about “piracy.” It’s so easy to get around I’m not sure why they bother. Amazon’s ebooks would be a lot easier to pass along. All you really need is the Amazon user name and password. The Nook’s DRM requires the credit card that was used to purchase the item if I’m not mistaken. I can frankly understand why Amazon would not want to permit access via epub as they want to make sure the files would have interoperability and use whispersync with Audible files. In any case Caliber makes it simple to convert epub files to mobi and then upload/convert and send to any Kindle address (except of course the cloud reader which is a pain and some few devices.) They really should permit other ereaders into their app store, but I can understand why they don’t. On the other hand readers like Scribd have designed apps that can easily be installed on Kindle Fires so “where there’s a will” there’s a way. Apple is also ridiculously locked down. Ironically, had the Author’s Guild not been so myopic in their suit against Google, they could have cut a deal for Google to digitize everything, make it fully searchable and paying a usage charge to authors, and providing some real competition. But then I’m a big Linux fan, too.

  7. As an avid book collector, it is hard for me to understand how people can love reading off of screens. I struggle to even read shorter articles off of a phone or computer, and can’t even attempt to read longer pieces of work.

    I agree with her regarding reading off desktop or laptop screens, but not with regard to e-readers. The memoir of a family friend was available on the Internet in PDF format. I could read only a few pages of the memoir at a time off a desktop monitor, but after I got an e-reader, I was able to read the memoir from start to finish just as easily as if it had been a print book.

    I have recently toggled between reading print copies or e-reader copies of certain works. I find it much easier to use an e-reader compared to a print copy.

  8. My attitudes to reading have shifted. For a time, most of my reading was on an iPod touch and later a Kindle 3. The iPod has been replaced by a series of three used iPhones, but I do little reading on the latest of them. Now my reading splits this way:

    1. Recreational reading—Not really reading at all. I get public domain audiobooks from Librivox or Loyal Books and play them in the specialized apps each has. Listening while I do other things, doubles the value of my time. I also listen to numerous podcasts, including the professionally done Classic Tales, which is currently featuring H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.


    2. Serious reading—For books that are references or that I know I will want to read again, I find the print version on Amazon, list it with camelcamelcamel.com, setting trigger price typically below $5, and order it when it drops below that price. That happens with almost every book but the really rare ones. The result is an almost new hardback for well under $10. I like the permanence that creates. It’s better than than owning an ebook and, given how I purchase, often cheaper even with postage.


    Readers take note of what he said about the USPS media rate. It is wonderful for book addicts on the move. It applies to CDs and DVDs as well as print books. It is about half the rate of parcel post, which makes it about the cheapest way to ship if you’re not in a hurry and have someone who can accept the boxes at the other end. The rate also doesn’t vary by distance like parcel post does. Cross-country is as cheap as across town. When I moved from Seattle to Auburn, AL, I shipped over 20 large boxes for about 50 cents a book. That might even be cheaper than the gas I would have expended going up and down 2900 miles of hills.


    Finally, if you live in a country where the bookstores are few and far between, you might check out:


    Books are often discounted and there is free delivery worldwide via the Royal Mail. If memory serves me correctly,that even includes remote Ascension Island. The downside it that it used to be independent until the Brits, in a fit of folly, let Amazon make it one of their affiliates.

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