Last month at the highly anticipated MacWorld conference here in San Francisco, Apple honcho Steve Jobs said some words that left many agape. Those words weren’t “Macbook Air” but “people don’t read anymore.” He was predicting a doomed future for Amazon’s new Kindle e-reader.
Shocked, I’ve been going over this for weeks now, trying to cut through the punditry and get to the essence of what Jobs meant. It seems to me that he was trying to say that books have gone the way of the dinosaurs (tell that to J.K. Rowling). That we are a nation (partly thanks to him and to his benefit) glued to flashy gadgets, some of which simulate things that we used to do with ink and paper, such as reading and writing.
While Jobs may be right to some extent — my post last week here at MediaShift shows that I personally have turned away from paper and towards devices — I believe underestimating books is like writing off a war-worn but sturdy presidential candidate: no matter how irrelevant they appear to be, they’ve still got a base of die-hard fans. I think Steve is premature in writing a eulogy for books, and here are my five reasons why I personally disagree with him:
1. I hate e-books.
The PDF format might have been invented for exactly this type of thing, but really: who wants to download a book and read it in Adobe Reader or — worse — print it out? E-books have proven to be valuable for authors (particularly in the business consulting industry) who want to provide their expertise in a book and distribute it widely at a negligible cost to them, often free to their readers. That’s all well and good, but no matter how compelling the subject matter appears to be, e-books don’t inspire me.
There are advantages to e-books, like the ability for an author to quickly update information rather than going through another printing when things become outdated. But to me, the format is flawed, and I’ll pay for a real book over a free e-book any day.
2. I can’t curl up with a gadget.
As excited as I am about my newest gadget, the amazing iPod Touch, the feature I’m using the least is the (unofficial) one that lets you read books. While I’ve got a few books available to me, such as Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I haven’t attempted to read it. Reading a book isn’t like surfing the Internet (which the Touch is great for). With books, you sit back and get comfortable, letting your eyes do most of the work. Your hands intervene every now and again, but it’s mostly a passive activity.
The iPod Touch is small and doesn’t accommodate much text, so I have to constantly scroll. And since I read fast, that’s anything but relaxing. Plus there’s no comfortable way to “curl up” with it. Most of my reading is done lying down, and there’s just no way to comfortably read for an extended period of time on the device while stretched out on a bed.
3. Sensory stuff.
It may sound trite, but there is something special about the experience of acquiring and reading a real live printed book. Brick and mortar bookstores are somewhat of a memory for me these days, but receiving a book I’ve ordered in the mail is exciting. Its newness — the flawless cover, the uncreased pages, the smell — begs to be read. Digging into a book and robbing it of some of that newness is part of the experience: bookmarking, dogearing, and highlighting until we’ve left our mark on it and it’s truly ours.
Another reason that books have it big over gadgets in the sensory department is imagery. As a photography enthusiast, I can appreciate that a large, glossy-paged book with brilliant color photography is superior to seeing the same content on a computer screen or a gadget. When I gave up photography magazines for their online equivalent, it was no big loss, as I was purchasing them for the tips and tricks (the bulk of the content), not the imagery. But to me there’s nothing like a big book of great photos you can lazily peruse with a cup of tea.
4. Emotional connection.
Many of us feel emotional connections to objects that remind us of people, places or times in our lives. This is how I feel about books. As I glance at my bookshelf and contemplate how I might rid myself of some of my ever-growing collection, I realize there are books I’ll likely never part with. I have film school textbooks I haven’t cracked open in five years, and probably won’t ever use again. I can’t get rid of them because they remind me of a time and place (I can’t say I feel this way about websites, for instance).
There are some David Sedaris books that I’ve already read but I keep them around because I know if I ever need a laugh, I can read them over and over again. There is my cookbook collection, which in spite of the death of food magazines for me, will always be around. And then there’s the collection of all my books, on display on my bookshelf to offer visitors a glimpse into who I am, but mostly there just to comfort me when I look their way.
I find it ironic that the same company that’s trying to push me into e-reading is the one that fuels my addiction to obtaining more “real” books. Before Amazon.com, I enjoyed going to the bookstore and picking up some books every once in a while. Now, thanks to the many ways Amazon has to hook you into that feeling of “I must have that book” — such as recommendations, user reviews and creating your own “store” for you — the amount of cash I drop for the printed word is not trivial.
This company, long before any other, mastered the art of suggestive retailing and knows well that one thing you are enthusiastic about leads to another…and another. As long as there is Amazon.com and as long as they are selling ink on paper, I’ll never be able to break my addiction.
Periodicals vs. Books
While I have been able to break up with print periodicals, it’s because magazines and newspapers lend themselves to digitalization. They are made for casual reading. With the current state of the art in e-readers, I’d say books are a welcome refuge from my electronic life. A touch of primitivism is good for us every once in a while. Take that, Steve.
I’m not saying this attachment to books doesn’t have its downside. Your life is less portable. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay and my books have traversed continents and time zones with me when I’ve left other “more valuable” things behind.
There are some types of books — such as reference books or guides — that lend themselves more to an electronic format, and might even gain from going digital. I’m not that attached to reference books, so I might be able to see those go.
With all their shininess and interactivity, gadgets like the Kindle are inevitably trying to emulate something many of us fell in love with when we were children: the reading experience and the comfort of books. Like with other relationships formed in our early lives, sometimes a substitute just won’t do. I don’t want an electronic mom, I want my real mom. And I still want real books.
What do you think? Do you prefer reading books on devices or in print? What advantages do real books have over devices in your opinion? Will gadgets ever make books obsolete? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.