Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My thoughts on the iPad, and more importantly on books

I came across a blogger's well-written post about Books in the age of the iPad through my friend's blog. I began writing a very long comment at the end of the article, but decided that, as long I was in the mood to pen a full diatribe, I might as well make a blog post about it. So go ahead and read the article. I'll wait. Then, come back.

Okay, so here's my thoughts. Much of the author's future vision of print seems dead on. In the coming age of the iPad, books will need to become more creative, more special, and more worthy of buying a paper copy as opposed to simply downloading it. However, I think that the points he makes about what won't be missed are simply untrue for a great many people.

As a result of focusing the last 20 years or so of my life on the printing industry and loving it, I got to have the last summer off when my company downsized. I hold no vision of a printing industry that isn't close to death's door. It has shrunk in size each and every year I've been in it, and I'm happy to be moving on to brighter pastures. But I will never stop loving print. It's just to special an industry.

Meanwhile, I watch the transition of print to digital by watching the habits of my lovely wife. She reads somewhere close to 100 books each year. She keeps a massive, color-coded list of books she has read each year, and looks forward to seeing it grow the way a triathlete in training looks forward to seeing his times shrink with each workout. Sometimes I think she skirts the fringes of insanity with this passion of hers, but I have the utmost respect for it. Frankly, it is kind of fun to watch her obsess over the latest issue of Bookmarks Magazine, or burn out a hair dryer (and a few hair follicles) after sitting in the bathroom for an hour lost in the pages of her latest novel. And of those 100 books each year, very, VERY few are purchased retail. They come second hand, they are borrowed from the library, they are purchased at used book sales, and they are even found tucked away in our house, obtained in years past by providers unknown.

My wife has told me over and over that she will NEVER read an electronic book. While I find the finality of that claim somewhat dubious, I cannot disagree that she, and many like her, are the reason the printed book may never go away, and I hope she's right. After all:

-You shouldn't have to spend $500 just to read a book.

-You can't give an iPad to your friend after you're done reading an ebook. Heck, you can't even conveniently give it to your spouse. And likewise, most households aren't going to buy an iPad for each member of the family. At least, mine ain't.

-As I mentioned above, very few books in our house were bought retail. I know, I know, this is one of the reasons why the printing industry is having such a hard time, and they need this new business model. Sure, that's true, but if my wife had to pay $15 for each and every book she read (now would probably be a good time to point out that she's actually purchased or obtained enough books that she hasn't read yet to keep her squirreled away in her reading chair for another couple of years without ever leaving the house), plus $500 for an iPad, well, the kids would be headed for technical school instead of Carnegie Mellon.

-Personally, one of my favorite times to read is during that period on an airplane when your tray tables must be placed in their full upright and locked position. The time when all electronics must be shut off is the best time to pull out that second-hand novel sitting in my backpack. And when your landing gets delayed such that you're circling for two hours without being able to use your ebook reader, well good luck not trying to light your sneakers on fire in frustration.

-Books don't break.

-You can't take an iPad to a book signing (which, by the way, is exactly where my wife is at this very moment).

-While I definitely agree that this new paradigm will force book manufacturers to get more creative with their printed products, I don't believe the same is true for childrens books. Be it toddler board books or young pre-teen Judy Blume novels, those products will be around for a long, long time. And believe me, after you've watched your nine-year-old waste an afternoon playing the Wii or on Webkinz.com, it's incredibly uplifting to see her pull out a Nancy Drew Mystery (yeah, they're still around) and disappear into a cozy chair for an hour with it.

-Imagine how dull and drab the den will look with empty bookshelves. I will have none of that.

-Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the concept of an iPad is the distraction. My wife complains that I never read anymore. That's almost true. I have to make an effort to detach myself from the day-to-day, from my latest home project, from the TV, or from the computer, in order to sit down and read something. But when I do, it's a unique experience that cannot be compared to attempting to read a story when you can be so easily distracted by something completely unrelated without even looking up from the page. This morning, as my daughter was reading The Lightning Thief at the breakfast table (and mind you I would NEVER let those grubby, pineapple juice-ridden sandwich clamps touch my ipad at the breakfast table if I had one), she asked me what a "caduceus" was. Not recognizing the word, we headed for the computer and suddenly got lost in a half hour of surfing Wikipedia and related sites. On the one hand, it's great to have all that information at your fingertips. On the other hand, it's great to disconnect once in a while.

Don't get me wrong. I want an iPad. I can't justify buying one right now, but I want an iPad just the same.


Aimee Weinstein said...

What an interesting post - and response to your friend's post! I too, read around 100 books a year. Because I live overseas, I end up purchasing way too many of them though. I've just bought a Kindle because it was the first device that could download books overseas. I travel a lot and books add a lot of weight to suitcases. That makes for a ton of over-weight charges! But in the end I'm a purist. I love holding the books in my hand, turning actual pages, and making notes in the margins. I follow with dismay the publishing wars that are happening over iPad rights vs. Kindle rights and how the publishers are anxious over book sales - and to whom to sell them and in what format. As a writer, I am doubly concerned because of copyright issues that arise with the electronic formats - sharing, etc. We can't stop the march of progress but we can protest the march of progress simply for progress' sake - instead of solutions-based progress. If nothing else, it's an interesting time in the book industry and I'm looking forward to seeing where it all goes. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Vanessa said...

You couldn't pry my Kindle from my dead hands. It's the best present I've ever gotten and though it took a while to warm up to it and get used to it, I now never leave home without it. I read like a junkie as well but unlike most people I think, I treat books kinda like movies. There are some I love and will read over and over again (do that to a paperback and you'll need a bag to keep all the pages in one place) and some I read once and never touch again. I'm also a huge fan of series and can't function if I can't just start the next book in the series immediately. Having a Kindle to me is like having an ipod, I can keep ALL my music (or in this case books) in one place, portable, and easy to access. My initial hesitation with adopting the Kindle was that I was pissed that I would have to "rebuy" all my books. Well the internet is a wonderful thing and I have no guilt about downloading books I already paid for so that fixed that issue real quick. The existence of libraries has also helped me to justify my downloading. If I read a new book and like it, I'll probably go out and buy the book cuz I want it in my collection. If I don't like it, it's like I just borrowed it from the library and I promptly delete it from my Kindle. The ability to read without using your hands is also a priceless feature of the Kindle. Set it to auto read and turn the volume all the way down and I find that it flips the page at pretty much the speed I need it to. This allows me to do anything else I want while sneaking in the last chapter. I'm surprised your wife is so against it. She should try it, hell, she might even find (like I did) that you actually get to read more, easier, and faster than if you just had paper books. :)

Vanessa said...

Oh and I find it funny when flight attendants ask you to turn off your e-readers. They just don't get the technology and that Kindles are never really "on". They're "on" when you change the state, either by flipping the page or turning it on and off. So I kinda just smile at them and keep reading my book. Course I end up changing it to super tiny font so I get the most out of my "last" page. :)

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

I love books so much that my wife built me a library in the house to put them in. While I technically admit that there is convenience in reading e-books, I agree with you completely on all of the reason to have an actual physical book.

I sometimes read e-books on my iPod Touch, but I have never purchased one, only free stuff out of copyright, or free downloads from authors like Cory Doctorow (an I still buy his books in print anyway). Once it is in e-format I think a file should cost nothing or only a little bit like 99 cents for a song. Thus my reluctance to buy e-books.

I can remember vacations with one backpack loaded with books for the two weeks of reading I was going to get to do at the cabin or on the beach, there an e-book would have been helpful, yet I didn't want to buy all of those books again in electronic format.

I could only repeat your excellent reason for buying print books at this point, but do let my register my strong vote in favor of the (physically) printed word.