Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Intangibility and Me – a future story

nookereaderSo, as anyone who’s following me on Twitter knows, I went out and bought a nook a few weeks  ago. This wasn’t a purchase I made lightly—nor should any purchase of such a high dollar value, but that’s not what this blog post is about—or without a lot of consideration of what it meant to take that step.

Buying the nook pushed me firmly into the 21st century model of content distribution. With my netflix account, I haven’t purchased a DVD in over 6 months, and the last movie I bought was Wrath of Khan so I could have it on my iPod. I shop exclusively through the various MP3 stores of the internet. I couldn’t imagine buying a music CD anymore. Since my drift towards PC gaming, I continue to keep up my goal of never purchasing a PC game that isn’t a download. Digital distribution of media is something I’ve been sinking deeper and deeper into as the years pass.

So why are books any different?

I know all the traditional arguments. Because I’ve made them myself in the past. There’s something special about books. The tangibility of turning pages. The sight of them all on a shelf, neatly arranged. The act of going into a book store and browsing through dozens of titles, hunting for deals, etc.

And you know what? I get it. I really do. The tactile sensation of reading isn’t lost on me. I remember the summer I lugged a gigantic hardbound copy of Stephen King’s The Stand with me on a road trip to Mount Rushmore. I was 13, and the book was bigger than my head. Hell, the book still might be bigger than my head. And that weighty tome imparted a certain gravitas to what I was experiencing. So don’t think I’m not numb to the joy that is a proper dead tree book.

But I really do need to be realistic about my life. I don’t have space anymore. My neat rows of bookshelves became a massive pile of boxes when I moved multiple times in the past seven years. And they’re still a pile of boxes. Heavy, frustrating, dust-collecting boxes. And when I would buy new books, they’d go on a ‘to be read’ shelf that grew and grew and just became more daunting over time. I would shop for deals at used book stores, not for what I wanted to read, but for what I knew was something I might be interested in and could get for cheap.

It’s a poor way to digest media, this scattershot method.

It got to the point where I just stopped reading altogether. In 2009 I read a total of one and a half books. I just couldn’t bring myself to go shopping for new books when my shelves were sagging under the weight and the boxes continued to stack ever more precariously in the closet.

I don’t have to tell you that, as a writer and lifelong reader and just an intelligent thinking person in the modern world, reading one and a half books in a year is completely, utterly unacceptable. 

Something had to change. 

Which is what brought me to this solution. Dead tree books are great, but they don’t compact well. The best thing that ever happened to my movie watching was Netflix, with the ability to compress all the things I wanted to see into one digital list. It created a proper queue, with guidelines and scope and manageability. Surely technology was up to the task to salvage my reading in a similar manner.

Which is what lead me to e-readers. I won’t bore you with the decision making process on why I settled on a nook over the obviously more popular Kindle other than

  1. ePUB support allowed me to shop outside of Amazon’s walled garden (and rent ebooks from my local library, which is a concept so fabulously futuristic that I salivate just thinking about it)
  2. aesthetic considerations, shallow as they may be
  3. who doesn’t want to support the up and comer taking on the establishment? (see early Apple fanboy fervor back in the day)

So I went and purchased the device. And that’s really the key here, the thing that I think makes the ereader a wonderful, long-term replacement for dead tree books—the device. You are not giving up tangibility, you’re trading one tactile interface for another. But instead of the interface being unique to the media (the experience of reading a book like Lord of the Rings is vastly different than a book like Animal Farm, just in terms of physical sensation) you have this all encompassing object that becomes the portal to unlimited future experience.

I know that I’m prone to getting overly attached to my technology, but it’s hard not to see my nook as an intellectual window into the infinite. What knowledge I want, I can receive. It’s abilities are limited only by my desire to best make use of them. I am enamored with that potential.

Sure, there’s no new book smell, but I’ll never break another spine again. Yes, I don’t have the pleasure of turning pages anymore, but my reading goes just as fast as it used to back in the analog days. And yes, you miss that downhill feeling when the left hand starts holding more of the book than the right hand and you know that the story is drawing ever on to its inexorable close. I could see missing that most of all. But in its place is the all-powerful progress bar, the object that any internet user and gamer sees as a temporary Holy Grail, a dragon to be slain, a mountain to be climbed. It’s the same experience of pace expressed in a more modern context. It takes some adjusting, but I found I’ve adjusted just fine. 

So I’ve given up my bookshelves for a virtual library, a series of covers I scroll through on a small touch screen. Maybe it’s not as satisfying on a creature comfort level, but it’s given books back to me. And that’s the one thing that is beyond all of the other arguments over format or experience. I feel excitement to read again, and that’s the real invaluable gift this has brought me.

I’m sure the books versus ebooks war will continue on for quite some time. But I’ve taken my side. And it was the side I was moving towards all along. I don’t need things. I just need experience. I don’t want a collection, I just wish for knowledge. Objects I can let go of, watch them float away. My book collection never really had any more permanence than I was willing to let it have, and now it’s truly nonexistent.

I don’t feel upset about that. I feel happy that all of those boxes are just so much old baggage that I can freely cut loose.

Pages on the wind, bytes on a drive, here one minute and gone the next.


Anonymous said...

You traitor.

Not really. I'll always love books, but I also have a place for them. The convenience of an eReader, especially for travel, tempts me, but I've no use for one at the moment.

Someday I'll probably cave, but I can't see myself ever NOT buying books. I love my library too much.

Carrie said...

" I don’t want a collection, I just wish for knowledge."

Gorgeous prose, even when you're talking about the here and now.

I have my touch and read books on it. I've decided I'm good either way. To eliminate my guilt, I started taking in books I could live without back to the bookstore to recycle.

Kinda like taking a guest back home.

Glad you love your Nook.