The weight of words

As a lifelong lover of books I can list many good reasons to support printed books as opposed to electronic books: the beauty of the printed book as an object is a view shared by many; the musty smell; the weight in your hand; the perfect size; the tangible delight of anticipation and discovery as you flick through the pages seeing sentences, thoughts and images at first glance; the sound of the pages turning. A whole library of these wondrous creations can keep your attention for days.

But I am being nostalgic. This may well be a vision from our past. Coffee-table books are more suited to these attention-deficit times. A quick flick through a glossy work of biblio-art is all our brief leisure time can afford.

Reading books is a lot more complicated now with the evolution and availability of ebooks and ereaders. Many of the things we love about the freedom of reading a book has finally been translated successfully to the ebook device: portability; visual ease of reading on a screen; choice of font size; finger-flick to next page; the sound of pages turning. Where once you might have carried one or two books in your bag for reading on trains, or in waiting rooms, or on the beach, your ebook device can carry that whole library of musty old books in the palm of your hand. Can it really? Theoretically – yes, but what books and how?

It depends! It depends which device you have, which distributor you choose, what format your device likes. Apple make it easy for even the most technologically- challenged amongst us – but at a price. You will be a slave to the proprietary nature of Apple products. Ipods, ipads, and iphones can do it all simply and quickly through the itunes software that connects your device with their software via the internet. But their software must be loaded onto your own pc initially for this all to work seamlessly. Apple has world domination in this field in the palm of their hands – apple-sized.

There are other devices suitable for ebooks but they also all have some kind of proprietary nature and problems associated with formats. If you try for a freely available format like PDF you will need further software that will reformat the PDF to be readable, scrollable, page-turnable, to suit your device. Software such as Adobe Digital Editions or Epub. Eyes glazing over now?

So the advantages of ebooks such as: portability, accessibility, immediacy, weight in hands (propability?), screen light, font size, library in your pocket; these advantages seem just out of reach for many. It’s easier to buy the book – if you can find the one you want in print.

Or go to the public library and borrow the book – for FREE! Now there’s an idea!! But chances are the latest new release by your favourite author is out on loan and you will have to reserve it and wait to be notified of its arrival for you. By then you might have bought it, or borrowed it from a friend. It might just be worth the cost of a quick download to your ereader afterall. Immediate gratification is sometimes not met well by public libraries. Whereas if you have your ebook/ereader format and subscription dilemmas sorted then you will be able to download that book you desperately want NOW.

While ebooks are cheaper per unit by comparison to the printed copy, you must factor in the other costs associated with your ebook convenience: the ereader, the internet access, the device plan, the credit card fees, etc.

The notion of the experience being “special” is also worth due consideration. The anticipation of waiting for that particular book is not to be dismissed. If I have immediate access to all and every book I want to read then not only am I swamped with too many things for my mind to manage, but that one special book loses some of its appeal if it is available to me straight away. This is a very fuzzy concept and needs further investigation, but book-lovers will know what I mean I’m sure. It’s like eating chocolate: if you eat it every day then you might get a bit sick of it, and it becomes common place and not the luxury special occasion item that it should be. Immediate impulsive download robs you of any anticipation. You are poorer for it. An article I read recently, “Can the book survive?” in the Good Weekend section of The Age on 15th January 2011, touches on this notion.

Further on in the same article is the idea that the “voice” of the author changes depending on the medium on which the text is being read. The layout of the text on the ereader screen can detract from the potency and importance of that text; while other books are more suited to being read on an ereader. I noticed this too when I read a free copy of Alice in Wonderland complete with old illustrations that I had downloaded onto my ipad. The artistic beauty of the serif-font laid out on the page was missing, and yet the small “original” illustrations were lovely captured on the small screen. This is where the book as beautiful object is most obvious, and in this case, lacking as an ebook.

This idea needs further research and I have the perfect title for a thesis – “The weight of words and how text and meaning are affected by format, display and availability”. Go for it.

So the advantages of ebooks and ereaders are disadvantages also. What they offer us in terms of portability and access robs us of the quality of the experience of reading in some obscure way. The delight of browsing, serendipity of discovery, and being exposed to a broad range of subjects that you might never have considered, amidst the shelves of books, narrows the experience to obtaining just the one book you seek. You might get what you want right now, but not what you don’t know that you might want.

Public libraries are the losers in this battle of the ebook/ereader formats. Publishers have tied up the ebook market into a knot. Ask at a public library if they have ebooks and you will get a bold “Yes” in response, followed by an uncertain “but…” What device? What format? Which book? Sorry but you can’t get fiction FREE in ebook format at a public library for download to your personal device. Well you probably can somewhere, but the latest titles? You will probably be able to easily read an ebook on the library pc or on your home pc if you are a library member. But ebooks mean portability, so what is the point of reading an ebook on your pc? Electronic notebook? Well maybe.

Most librarians will tell you about the many ebook collections available online, such as Project Gutenberg, Safari books, ebooks at the National Library of Australia, the ebooks supplied by Adelaide University, and many more. But this is not answering the problems associated with being able to borrow the latest novel for free from your library, or perhaps buying the ebook outright then being able to pass it on to a friend.

It is too soon for a conclusion of thoughts. These are uncertain times for book lovers. It is still evolving. Optimistically I think that public libraries and freedom of access will prevail. Fearfully I envision half empty shelves with old pre-loved books decomposing and awaiting the arrival of H. George Wells in his Time Machine. (Remember that scene from the classic movie where he is relieved to find the public library only to have the books fall to dust in his hands?)

Ultimately literacy, creative endeavour, the need to express ourselves, the desire to share our ideas, and discover new ones, and the pure and simple love of books as objects will ensure that public libraries continue to be valued as places for community narrative, history, wealth of knowledge, ideas, learning, gathering, sharing and for the free inclusive access for all.