Jordan bookWhen plugging e-books, I run into a recurring objection—something like this: “But I just like the look of books on my shelves or on my coffee table.” This isn’t just me. SF author Steve Jordan got dozens of similar comments when he pitched Read an eBook Week at Chronicles Science Fiction Forums.

It’s tempting to reject the objections as a sort of a book fetish, and in fact, that’s not all wrong. How many books are bought not to read but to display? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this, but I suspect that David McCllough’s John Adams and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time were purchased by most people to put on tables and impress friends—or in the hope that someday the buyers would be able to sit down and read them.

Fathoming the resistance to e-books

If books are fetish objects, then resistance to e-books begins to make sense.

Many of us dread being approached by the earnest young man with the massive leather Bible draped over his arm—who could not fear the approach of a PDA-carrying equivalent? Many of us have fond memories of growing up near dusty libraries where all of the world’s secrets seemed kept, and where we could dream of reading All The Books.

Coping with the paper fetish

How, then, to address the fetish of paper? Certainly you don’t have to spread the fetish, camel-load by camel-load, to distant parts of the globe. But I think it’s important not to criticize it, either. First, few respond well to having their fetishes criticized, but second, and most importantly, the book fetish is a hopeful sign. A book fetish means that people want to read, recognize that they should read, but all too often simply don’t read.

I suggest the answer is this: paper books are for decoration, for fetish objects. E-books are for reading. Reading e-books doesn’t run the possibility of damaging your precious paper books. Even more importantly, you can really read e-books. Because you carry them with you in your phone or PDA, you can read them when you’re stuck waiting for an appointment, waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for your children to pick the all-important gym shoes, or during those long moments while your child is on the bench in the pee-wee football game.

P-books as decorations—and e-books for reading

Let’s embrace the paper fetish–every home needs some p-books for decoration, and as reminders of an earlier way (like those nice samplers from our grandmother that we hang on the wall). E-books are much more prosaic—they’re for reading.


  1. I must admit to a fetish for old books, not to impress my friends but just because I love them. Modern books just don’t have that beautiful paper (unless you pay a fortune for deluxe editions). As most of mine are Classics subjects or ancient history, a pet subject, they do get read. And they just don’t make authors like some of the old classicists, they thought nothing of spending years researching their subject. No quick buck coffee table volumes for them.
    However, I am a realist – the digital versions are usually available on the internet and they get used just as often. And much safer than subjecting 150 year old books to the horrors of my desk!

  2. I’m not sure I would refer to what we are seeing as a Fetish, but I guess the term works as well as any. The issue is that people are creatures of habit. And habits are hard to break unless there is some incentive to do so and ebooks have not given us one. I think ebooks are the way to go. I think their advatanges and potentional exceeds pbooks. The biggest problems I see are first the reader and pricing.

    I have yet to see a good reader that I would purchase. I think e-ink and the other technologies youv’e talked about here are the way to go but the fact is that they still fall a little short. People will expect a device that reads like paper, has a good battery life (if I can’t read at least one book on a charge this woudl be an issue) and cost (people are use to play $100+ for music players they are not for book readers).

    The pricing comes in two forms, both the reader cost stated above and ebook prices. Some are priced resonably but others are not. People are not going to shell out $100+ for a reader and then pay hardcover prices for books. The prices would need to be near or a little below softcover.

    I think that if the read and price issues are resovled we will see the young generation pick up ebooks and then as they age they will become main stream. But I think you got one thing dead on, there is a place for both e- and p- books.

  3. I think we can all appreciate a finely crafted book. I don’t buy many print books these days, but when I do they do tend to be books that wouldn’t really work in a current e-book environment — gorgeous oversized art books for example.

    The problem with books, however, is those gorgeous volumes also take up a lot of space (I know, I use to own about 10,000 of them) are a pain-in-the ass to move, frequently have useless or no indexes, etc. etc.

    Anyway, perhaps the issue does come down to mp3 vs. vinyl but in a different sort of way.

    Pretty much everyone I know has quite a few CDs or the equivalent in MP3s. Most people I know I’d estimate own about 50 CDs on average. Having a single MP3 device that can hold all 50 CDs worth of music is an advantage.

    How many people do you know who own more than 50 books? How many of those feel the need to have their book collection as portable as their MP3 collection?

    I certainly do, but I suspect us bibliophiles who want to carry around large numbers of books are probably a tiny subset of the vast number of bookbuyers who presumably just want to stop in a book store, pick up a couple novels, and go.

  4. I have never equated my love for books as a sexual obsession–which is what fetish means. I have always loved reading books, and always preferred to buy my own copy rather than use the library. I have them available to me 24 hours a day (if I happen to need some information in a book I bought ten years ago.)
    E-books can’t compete because I cannot get the variety of older books I need for research in e-book format. Also, even if I could, the security tacked onto most e-books makes them unpleasant to deal with.
    Then there is the simple lack of an affordable and universal e-book reader. My laptop works for the task, but my eyes have already deteriorated a lot in the past few years from staring at the screen (to write, and to research on line.)
    I’m not ashamed to say I’m a bibliophile. I consider my extensive personal library to be an investment in knowledge. If knowledge is sexy, and if people get turned on by learning, then you could call owning books a fetish of sorts…

  5. “I have never equated my love for books as a sexual obsession–which is what fetish means.”

    Actually fetish was coined in the 18th century and its original meanining — which I assume is being used here — is as a man-made object that has power over people. Originally fetish referred to objects used in religious rituals.

    The notion of a “fetish” psychologically was adapted in the 19th to apply sexual desire for inanimate objects, and has then expanded to include pretty much any non-mainstream sexual practice.

  6. The problem with the theory that “ebooks are for reading” is that I have beaten four books to hell and back after dragging them around for years. It would cost me about twenty bucks each to replace them. But none of them demand replacement, and even replacing all four of them is less than the cost of an ebook reader. An ebook reader that is likely more fragile than those books and is likely to get broken or lost in the time that I have been dragging those books around.

  7. Thanks for the discussion. Just thought I’d share with you the Meriam Webster online definition of Fetish which is exactly what I had in mind with my use of the term. Here it is:

    1 a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly : a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.

    As a person with a house full of pBooks (so much so my wife legislated a one book in, one book out policy when she got tired of buying new bookcases every weekend), I understand the fetish and embrace it. I also read books electronically when I have the choice.

    Happy reading

    Rob Preece

  8. Well, we’re one of those folks that have well over 1000 books in our house. But, with a small number of exceptions, they’re nearly all “reading copies” whose edition and condition matter little as long as they have the text and pictures we want, in a convenient, easily read (or, for some of our work, easily-scanned) form. There are very few rare or first-edition-for-the-sake-of-being-first-edition copies in the lot.

    In other words, we don’t buy most of our books to show; we buy them to keep. Or to give to our friends so that *they* can keep them. (It’s much more enjoyable to give friends something we know can stay with them rather than something transient.)

    Or, to put it in cruder terms, we’re not fetishists so much as pack rats.

    I don’t know how much of the book buying market is made up of folks like us. But if you include libraries in the group, who also like to keep what they buy, it’s probably a pretty large segment. Which could also explain much of the resistance to commercial ebooks, since most of them, particularly the DRM-encumbered variety, are very much not pack-rat-friendly.

  9. Quote from Rob’s definition:

    “1 a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly : a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.”

    Then I’ll tell you from the experience in my home that it isn’t my mountain of print books that holds magical power. Instead it’s any electronic gadget or game, including computer games (the entire Sims series causes obsessive devotion in some teenagers.)
    But just because my teenagers “revere” gadgets, I’m still not going to buy e-readers until the price comes down–they are currently about double the cost of the hand-held gaming devices. I don’t understand why e-book readers couldn’t be produced for the same price as these game players!

  10. Great column, Rob, and lots of great discussion here! I’ll toss my two cents in by saying seems like there’s room for both in this world–I wouldn’t trade my favorite print copies, but it sure lightens my load when I’m travelling with ebooks!!

  11. Below is a link from waaaay back in September 2000, which found that students reading academic text on-screen retained less of the content than students who read the same text in print.

    Also, the blog:

    has an article about the possible connection between the hand turning the page of an actual book and the triggering of neurons which aid in retention of the material. They go on to compare turning a page and the repetitive motion of clicking and moving a mouse, which might possibly dull brain activity, or osmething, i forget wut i was sayin…

  12. The “waaay back” is operative here. Display tech is much improved, and there are other issues, such as how much control the students had over the display of the material—styles and sizes of the letters, for example. As for p-page-turning vs. e-scrolling or whatever, it sounds like a stretch to me. Thanks for some interesting Other Perspective! David

  13. 4 new books = ebook reader cost? Not necessarily.

    You can get the 4 books used, as you could the book reader. A Palm m100 would cost you a few dollars.

    In 4 years, how much will an eink reader be, anyone want to guess?

    Hardbacks are around $55 here, trade annoying books $33. I can certainly get a newish Palm /something else device for four of those.

  14. Dear Rob,
    I appreciate your efforts on behalf of saving the trees, aka e-books.
    I am convinced that if and when mobile e-reading devices lower their prices and more publishers offer multi-format, sales will rise.
    As a handheld device, eBookwise does offer a more visually appealing reading experience than the smaller Palm and the likes, yet I know there are even better units out there, with larger screens that give you a sense of the printed page — alas, at a dear price.
    So let’s wait for better days.


  15. I can’t resist having another comment here. Maybe books are going through the process music went through. Once upon a time the only way you got to hear music was live, then we had recordings on cumbersome equipment, then vinyl, then portable record players, then CD’s, then portable CD players. now MP3’s. Took a while but I can now listen to an orchestra while riding in a bus. Maybe we just have to wait – it will happen, eventually. Until Ebook readers are as portable as paperbacks and user friendly as MP3 players they probably won’t be widely used, but when they are, well, wonder what happened to all those vinyl manufacturers…..?

  16. 1. ebook formats only allow primitive kinds of choice for layout and presentation (with pdf being the notable exception). Print books (and web-based books offer lots of capabilities that ebooks cannot. This will change quickly though.
    2. print books by established writers are often cheaper than ebooks. The only reason I prefer print books over ebooks would be cost. Ebooks aren’t cheap (although your site is doing a lot to counter that).
    3. I think the real change will start when people start publishing exclusively as ebooks. In a way you can say PG is doing precisely that.

  17. Can someone point out to me where this article the writer mentions “saving the trees” as one reader’s comment pointed out? I can’t seem to find it. If it’s in previous articles, can someone e-point the way?

  18. Hi Stephen,
    I don’t mention tree-saving in this post. That said, it certainly is true that substituting eBooks for pBooks that would otherwise be printed will mean less logging, less pulping, less long distance trucking, and less landfill usage. I personally believe that eBooks offer a non-trivial contribution toward the ecology. Using low-power reading devices also helps, of course.

    Rob Preece

  19. Rob:
    I feel that the means you use to propose that eBooks are better than pBooks–i.e., your “fetish” argument–is not well thought out. You start off citing a superficial argument FOR pBooks (the decoration idea) and then proceed from there as if you needed no further grounding of your argument.
    A parallel might clarify what I mean:
    “Dogs are better pets than cats because people who prefer cats own cats solely so they can appear refined, sensitive, and other superficial reasons. Now that we all agree with THAT idea about cat owners, let’s move on….” That’s how your article comes across, to me.

    Why not try and come up with what could possibly be a good reason (or two) for preferring pBooks over eBooks and then dismantle THAT argument, which would strengthen your side of the argument. After all, the sign of a strong intellect is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once.

  20. Stephen Bracco said “After all, the sign of a strong intellect is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once.” Yes, many believe that this mental flexibility is a sign of intellectual maturity. For example some debating societies require participating teams to prepare arguments for both sides of a proposition.

    In the spirit of edifying contradictions and because this is a blog about books I offer another view embodied in a quote by George Orwell:

    His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again

    There might be some dangers in holding “two contradictory ideas in your head at once” ;-).

  21. Thanks for the comment, Stephen,
    I think I made it clear that I was talking about people who claim to prefer pBooks without ever trying an eBook. It is difficult to hold a rational preference if you simply refuse to consider an alternative.
    I don’t think my decoration idea is at all superficial–countless books are bought for decorative purposes.
    Reasons I’ve heard stated to prefer pBooks? pBooks are what you’re used to, they have a very high resolution, they don’t need batteries, they are available in multiple places, they have a resale value, they can be signed by the author, and some of them stand up well to being dropped.
    Suppose I demolished all of these arguments? You could simply say that your arguments for preferring pBooks were yet something else and that I was setting up straw men.
    That said–eBook resolution has increased to the point where millions of people spend all day looking at various screens with minimal or no eye fatigue. Battery life has improved to the point where a single charge will allow you to read from Dallas to London. eBooks are available in your bedroom or office–even better than your five mile drive to B&N. The resale value is largely a joke–as anyone who’s attempted to sell used books (especially used fiction) can attest. I don’t know what percent of Amazon used books go for a penny but it’s a significant percent. Book signing–yeah, that’s a legitimate argument, but I think it goes to the fetish side rather than the reading experience (it’s a primary reason I offer pBooks as well as eBooks at Dropping eBooks, taking baths with them, all of those durability things–I try to be careful with all of my books, e or p, but if you’re accident-prone, you might not want to carry a phone, iPod, or other device with you, either, but I don’t hear this argument in favor of buying CDs vs. downloads.

    I really don’t have anything against paper–I think it was a great technology that dominated for hundreds of years. Increasingly, its decorative and ‘statement’ value will outweigh its reading value.

    Rob Preece

  22. I think what Orwell meant in the quote from “1984” was something more akin to living one’s life as a lie, or as a hypocrite. As in this:

    “knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them”

    I didn’t say one should believe in two contradictory ideas, I meant it takes good, hard mental effort to avoid demonizing the other guy. That’s all I meant. Yet we all do it. We’re human.

    Of course books are tangled up in such distasteful things as the desire for status, the desire to appear educated and erudite. The fetishization of bourgeois status is the oldest story going.

    Marx said that the means of production defines the qualities of the object produced. A book is a fetishized object full of little printed letters of fetishized images because it was produced in a society which fetishizes fame and success, which fetishizes both the psychological satisfaction and the material success which can come to those rare lucky few who can put effective words together and earn fetishized dollars for it.

    Commerce is fetish. Books for a Buck is an outlet which procures a hot date between individuals and the desired ideas/emotions conjured in the reader’s brain when she opens the pbook(or “turns on” the ebook–hubba hubba).

    To suggest that the reader of ebooks is free of the fetishistic aspects of reading and of the book as a fetishized object is, in my subjective opinion, to look at books as primarily objects to be bought and sold. Meaning, it’s the argument of the salesman, which says that my product is better than that other product and here’s why. There’s nothing wrong with being a book salesman, but the rhetoric of marketing is very different than the rhetoric of intellectual debate.

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