16 February 2012

Do E Books Get Dusty on Your Shelf?

Been reading through the Paris Review Blog online. Good writing, stimulating essays. But I have to wonder why a literary magazine able to publish anything it wants also runs a literary blog, and publishes there as well?

Why is the weekly New Yorker Magazine also online? Who besides politicians can possibly have THAT much to say? Why is Karen Brown, of the esteemed Karen Brown travel guidebooks, publishing her annual guides this year only in electronic format?

Why do successful travel guides from Lonely Planet, Frommers and DK Eyewitness plus BBC Travel and TimeOut and Hearst now come in a new app for Pads and Phones and Touches, not to mention Androids? The Wenzani app combines amateur feedback with professional research, producing – well, if you read the early reviews from users –  producing a flawed piece of software that crashes easily and doesn’t yet have a lot of useful information on it.

All this puzzles me.

Any time I feel a bit out of synch I can look around my study and gaze at seemingly endless shelves of books. The more obscure the happier they make me. These silent books provide inspiration just by standing on the shelf.  I don’t have to open one to feel the joy. Blowing the dust off is enough.

Here is my high school copy of Candide (is Voltaire still read in American high schools?). Early chapter: How Candide Escaped from the Bulgarians and What Became of Him.

In this underlined passage the amazingly naive Candide is referring to his mentor, Doctor Pangloss:

 “(He) was right in telling me that all is for the best in this world, for I am vastly more touched by your extreme generosity than by the harshness of the gentleman in the black cloak and his good lady.”

Candide has made his way across a bloody battlefield, seen villages ruined by opposing armies, begged unsuccessfully for a crust of bread, had a chamber pot dumped on his head for not acknowledging the Pope as Anti-Christ, and finally been rescued by a stranger who feeds and washes him. This adventure is detailed in two pages, by the way.

Why did I underline so much? Did I fear it would be on the test?

Jefferson and Franklin and the other reluctant revolutionaries were all alive in 1759 when Voltaire published Candide. No doubt many of them read the book in the original French or the immediate English translation. Voltaire was an effective agent of change. He gave courage to French intellectuals and to the Americans as well.

This week a book trade publication reported the results of a Book Industry Study Group survey on Consumer Attitudes Toward E-book Reading. Some of the findings are surprising. According to the survey, three-quarters of people who buy books have not yet purchased a single E-book. As many as 14% of people who own an e-book reader have not yet purchased anything to read electronically.

In other words, three out of four people who purchase books to read still read on paper, despite the rapid growth of electronic alternatives, and a significant number of people possessing e-readers don’t use them much.

The survey also reported that e-books continue to sell in increasing numbers, but the rate of growth has slowed substantially. Maybe the novelty has worn off. My unscientific guess is that people who read books on e-devices do so for specific reasons – while traveling, for reference purposes, to play Sudoku, but for long-form literature, not so much.

I have been asked many times, as if I had special knowledge, and I don’t, what to think of the e-book phenomenon, as if suddenly we had reached the end of the 500-year Gutenberg experiment. At first I didn’t know what to say – people were afraid the trickle of e-readers would soon become an avalanche, sweeping away everything – shelves, dust and all.

But that has not happened. Electronic access to reading materials is becoming simply another path to reading. E-everything E-expands the universe of choice, and will suit some more than others. More readers, more things to read and more ways to read them. How can that be a bad thing?

I look around this room, pull down a few dusty books from a high shelf, and flip through. Here is An A.B.C. of English Usage Price 2s. 6d., published in 1936 at the Clarendon Press, Oxford. It was once owned by Schuyler G. Urquhart, who has excellent handwriting, and Schuyler I want to thank you for the loan, probably to my mother, and let you know you can have your book back any time now.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy reading the explications of terms such as apodosis, apostrophe and apopthegm, which, apparently is much the same as aphorism.

Now I know something new, and I’m happy.


A new conglomerated travel app


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Quick thought. I have a few e-books I read on our iPad. Sometimes you can get the little e-books for significantly less than a real, paper copy. These are books I can't get from the library. I'd rather borrow them. They're fiction and I'll only read them once and I long ago ran out of space for very many more new books. Sometimes, I never get them finished at all. There was a reason the library didn't have them. If I bought the actual book, I donate it to the library to, hopefully, save someone else from my mistake. But, the few e-books I do have, well it's ever so handy having a little assortment of books in my purse when you're out and about.

However for me, personally, a travel book has got to be the worst possible application imaginable for an e-book. How, exactly, do I highlight (well, you can highlight), jot notes in the margins, check sentences/paragraphs, post-it note, post-it flag and flip through an e-book? Just wondering!

Happy reading,


Anonymous said...

I saw a good presentation on that BISG study at the ABA Winter Institute, and also there's a very interesting study on consumer book-buying, now in its 3rd year, that Verso Digital Media does. (It was also presented at WI.) Both were informative and full of surprises, including this one: in the past 3 years, the number of avid readers who have an e-reader or expect to have one soon has grown, but so has the number of readers who expect to NEVER have one. That number is now over 50%. Hmmm.

Greg White said...

Hi Tony, here's a little "why ebooks" story for you, re your email:
I drove to Santa Rosa Tuesday to see a doctor, and headed back in the afternoon along River Road listening to a mini fund raiser on KPFA. The host of the moment was offering the latest books by Lester Brown and Michio Kaku as premiums, and talking with M Kaku about climate change, the global food crisis, their books and KPFA of course. Fascinating, horrifying discussion, and utterly compelling listening.
Determined to call in my donation in later from Gualala, where I had reserved a room for the night, I turned right before Jenner, just for fun, and headed north towards Cazadero and Fort Ross Road, keeping the radio signal alive, though weak, as I drove slowly over the mountains. As I began to climb into the steep, hauntingly beautiful woods the KPFA programmer/show changed and I was soon listening to Allan Watts reading his "Into The Woods", talking about spiritual traditions, ways of perception. The signal faded eventually, but the whole experience, listening, driving through that amazing country with these inspirational thinkers (and my pal Hank The Cowdog) became transcendent for me. 
When I reached Gualala, I fed the dog, turned on my Kindle, and I bought both Lester Brown's "World On The Edge", and Michio Kaku's "Physics Of The Future". Hungry for meat and red wine, I left the Kindle downloading Allan Watts from Audible.com while I went out for dinner.
 Later, after walking the dog along the bluff trail along the river mouth, I went back to my room and drifted off listening to Allan Watts.
KPFA missed my donation by a hair, I got my virtual books.

I am a bookstore supporter, buy lots of books at Cheshire and Gallery, have a lovely credit balance at The Book Store on Franklin Street, but I won't part easily with my Kindle. I have issues with the thing, one being I can't easily lend these books, they're pretty much stuck in my computer, iPhone, and Kindle. 
Thanks for the photo from last week's
home repair adventure.


paul in davis said...

Just wondering how scribes felt when the printing press came along. "Why would anyone prefer the cold, impersonal, mass-produced product of a printing press when they can get a handmade, unique work of art from me?" Sigh.
I'm not taking sides anymore: paper, digital, whatever. As long as people still desire and seek quality lit, that's good enough for me.

Jan Needle said...

Tony, Greetings, as ever, from the snowy Pennine hills of Lancashire. I liked your piece about ebooks, but I have a confession to make. I've dreamed up a virtual publishing venture, called Skinback Books, to epublish new and refurbished books of mine and, soon, of other people. My first four went up on Kindle this week – the usp being that none of them is more than a quid – and two on Smashwords, with more in a few days. Killing Time at Catterick you know – and have been very kind about – and the other new one is a violent, sexy thriller about a problem our countries share, the explosive situation in overcrowded prisons, and what happens when they explode. It’s called Kicking Off. Then there are two children’s books, both of which were hugely successful when they were originally published over here.

My feeling is that ebooks will never, ever, be a substitute for card and print and paper. The smell, the feel, the vital ability to flick back and forward, even to underline and write rude comments in the margin. But for us authors a whole new world is also opened up by the electronic thing. It’s a rare writer who doesn’t want to strangle a publisher from time to time. Now we can publish books ourselves, and have nobody else to blame for failure. That is liberation. There’s also the cross borders thing. To get an English book published in America is a logistic triumph. Ditto an American book in England. Your publishers, at the very least, have this weird idea that if a book says pavement instead of sidewalk, their readers will get the vapours and refuse to buy. Ours have their own little stupidities, as I’m sure you know. Now I buy and read American books instantaneously, and without any visible damage to my health. And Americans, please the lord, will read books by me in English English – and at never more than just above a dollar!

Hope to see you in the summer. The boat is waiting! Oh, I blog now too, on a site dedicated to ebook authors. http://authorselectric.blogspot.com

Am I allowed some urls? If not, delete, except for www.janneedle.com

Kicking Off:

Killing Time at Catterick:

My Mate Shofiq:

Albeson and the Germans:
Shofiq:http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86957. Albeson: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86960

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