Swing Both Ways: Why Print Bibliophiles Should Stop Hating On E-books

My Spanish barista friends must have thought I was mad when shortly after sitting down to an afternoon Earl Grey, I frantically asked in broken Spanish if they could watch my heavy bag while I ran back to the metro station for Gertrude Stein. I was taking "American Writers in Paris" while studying English literature in Madrid (yeah, process that for a moment), and I'd been reading a copy of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" I stole from a library in Texas. I'd left it on the subway and panicked when I realized this.

Fortunately, the woman at the ticket counter understood my description of a small red book and produced it with a smile that said "you might be crazy, please leave now."

Today, this little hardback sits on my shelf, and every time I look at it, I remember this experience and smile. No other book has the same backstory. Had I been carrying an e-reader, I probably wouldn't have gotten it back and I wouldn't attach this memory to any particular text.


Embracing the Dark Side

Cut to last fall, when I purchased my first e-reader. It was a momentous occasion. Just a mere three years ago, I was fiercely devoted to print (hell, I worked at a newspaper). And to this day, when I walk into a good bookstore, I find myself needing to pee from excitement. But I've grown to love this digital format... and grown annoyed with the idea that I'm cheating on my other books.

The notion that e-books are inferior to "real" books is a misconstrued debate, and the fighting has to stop. It's about as productive as arguing over whether listening to an audio book "counts" as reading a book. Seriously? The "real thing" when it comes to storytelling goes further back than Gutenberg's press—all the way to oral storytelling traditions. So maybe audiobooks are really more authentic choices.

Stories are an experience. The format of that experience is not what makes the content worth engaging.


Why E-books Are My Friends

I chose my first e-books deliberately; I read Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to try. Here's why I ended up loving the e-book experience more than I ever anticipated:

  • Feedback. When I downloaded my first e-books, I also started using ReadMill. It is an almost surreal experience to be able to tweet comments on specific selections not only to my friends but to the actual author as well. She may not reply back, but I can give immediate feedback on how I'm receiving her work (although I've engaged in conversations with two authors via Twitter so far).
  • Community. As much as I love book clubs (and don't intend to give them up), it's also fantastic to immediately see how people I will never meet IRL respond to something I've reacted to. My thoughts can be immediately influenced by others if I choose and thus have the chance to mature faster. I hope to see more web content structured this way in the future. In fact, I'd argue that reader feedback methods on most blog is disappointingly behind the curve (but that's another blog post).
  • Portability. I still have many of my college textbooks that I can't bring myself to discard whenever moving time rolls around. It's both a matter of financial and intellectual investment. I may never sit down to re-read the whole of Plato's work or my massive collection of women's poetry—but I do return to sections of these texts now and then, and my notes remind me of where my mind was years ago. I don't want to discard these experiences—which is where e-books come in as a joy for those who feel connected to our texts and prefer living as lightweight as possible. (Interestingly enough, there's also an argument that just the opposite fuels e-book popularity—that e-books are the new mass market paperback.)
  • Accessibility. Despite the abundance of trolling and otherwise disappointing human behavior, the potential this medium holds is mind blowing. As a civilization, it's startling how quickly we've moved from the preciousness of printed materials to an information free-for-all. What this means for education in places with limited opportunities is even more inspiring to me.


Stop Quibbling, Start Imagining

The long of the short of this bookish debate is that e-books can do things and have advantages that printed books cannot and do not. But the reverse is true as well.

Each format has its place, and I want to see what each can accomplish that the other cannot. For example, if you're going to spend the money to print something, make it different than what could be conveyed in a digital format.

I'm currently reading Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, which has been bound in a lovely soft-touch coating that actually makes me pick up the book more often. That, my friends, is the power of print—and it's not being exercised often enough.


Swing Both Ways. Seriously.

But here's the real secret: you don't have to choose one or the other. You can love both (and most people are not exclusive with their book choices).

I have by no stretch of the imagination abandoned print (more than a dozen boxes of books my Dad has moved more than once is a testament to that). I stand in old bookstores and just breathe in the stories (ones printed on pages and ones left there by their former owners)—but I also spend my day writing content for the web. I have 6 pen pals I handwrite letters to every month—but I send email every hour.

Print and digital content are not at war. They are allies in the greater battle against ignorance.

The Facebook Fast

Screenshot of Facebook deactivation Almost a month ago, I got the notion in my head to find out what life would be like without Facebook. I signed up in 2006, and while I was no longer at my peak use, Facebook had become integrated in my life in other ways. I wanted to find out how dependent my online life was on Facebook. Here's what I discovered.

  • Social login: I use Facebook for social sign-on for a number of apps and websites. Losing this functionality was one of my biggest concerns, but as it turns out, I don't depend on it nearly as much as I thought I did. Most sites allowed me to use my Twitter account to sign in, so dropping Facebook didn't mean losing social sign-on.
  • Information: Facebook provides a quick way for me to look up information I should really already know, like my roommate's birthday or how to properly spell my new niece's name. I can do it on the spot without anyone being the wiser. I do miss that.
  • Relationships: To be perfectly honest, the only pictures and milestones I miss having Facebook for are of my niece and nephew, and not having Facebook available at all times makes it more difficult to show off their cuteness on the fly. Okay, I also miss sharing cat videos with friends (they don't seem worthy of an email). What I don't miss, however, is life-bragging™ of people I went to high school with, or the constant political banter the election season and the wake of a tragic shooting in Connecticut. Instead, I get to just have real conversations with people about these important topics. People with whom I have an actual relationship of substance I talk with in person, on the phone, or (gasp!) write letters.
  • Advertising: One positive of Facebook is it provides small local businesses with a free online presence that doesn't look horrid. Deactivating my Facebook account didn't mean I couldn't access basic information like hours through Facebook, but it did mean I couldn't offer my support through Facebook likes. On the other hand, now I don't have to deal with a skewed feed telling me about all my friends liking Walmart, and that's pretty great.

Ultimately, leaving Facebook hasn't had nearly the withdrawal effect I expected, which is great. I left the app on my phone to find out how much time I mindlessly used it, and after about a week, the habit drastically reduced. I'm happy it's been that easy to let go of a false sense of connection in favor of fostering more meaningful ones.