A Little Background
A couple of months ago, my amazing wife got me a great birthday present – a Barnes & Noble Nook. I had been conflicted about getting an e-book reader, but was ready to give digital books a shot. Since I’m both technophile and bibliophile, the gift made perfect sense. And given the amount of time I spend in front of LCD screens (laptop, iPhone, TV, etc.), I was grateful not to receive a Nook Color or an iPad, which would just add to the eye strain that I already experience. And the E-Ink screen has lived up to expectations – it really does mimic the experience of reading on a page quite well.
Of course, being something of a classicist, it’s a weird mental adjustment to read digital books. I’d always been the type that loves to smell the pages of old books and I really appreciate a nice leather-bound edition of Poe’s Complete Works. That’s obviously not an option any more, so I went with the next best thing – a beautiful handmade leather cover from Oberon, which at least gives it that nice leather smell, so I can feel a little more like I’m reading a real book (side note: I’m not affiliated with Oberon in any way, but I’m really happy with my cover). Even so, there are still books that I will insist on keeping in hard copy – classics, favorites, and so on.
There are a number of features with the e-reader I really enjoy that I know I would never get with a book. One of these is obviously having one device that I am comfortable with, rather than learning the feel of a new book every few weeks. Oddly enough, another feature I love is the ability to quickly go from one book to the next, even download a book on the spot and start reading. Even if I’m thinking about buying a book, I can preview it on the Nook first and decide whether to purchase it. In the same vein, the Nook allows me to go to any Barnes & Noble and read a book for free while I’m connected to their wi-fi. All are very nice features.
The feature I most appreciate, though, is the Nook’s ability to lend and borrow books, particularly borrowing from a library. This is the sole reason I preferred the Nook over the Kindle. I think the ability to borrow books at will is an incredible feature. I can honestly say that I’ve checked out more books so far this year than I checked out in the last 4 years combined, all because they were quickly sideloaded onto my Nook. Thankfully, our public library (King County Library System) has a great selection of e-books available for checkout, so it’s been a pleasant experience. I simply download the book, load it onto the Nook, and then “return” it when I’m finished. I can keep the book for up to 21 days or return it early, just like a traditional book.
Certainly there are issues that bug me – highlighting is a nuisance and I wish I could view only highlighted passages (would be great for note-taking). The touchscreen often experiences a good deal of lag or is unresponsive. And E-Ink technology still has plenty of room for improvement. However reading books on the Nook has been a mostly positive experience.
As I mentioned, it was the last feature – lending and borrowing – that really sold me on the Nook. As I see it, that Kindle did not (until recently) allow lending or borrowing was a shame. It seems like a good piece of hardware, but we need the ability to share. Whether it’s status updates on Facebook, links through Delicious, or books, sharing things we enjoy connects us to others. Even if it’s just the library, there is now a connection between borrower and lender. Consequently, when the lender (in this case, the library) needs something, I am indebted and likely to oblige (by voting in favor of the library system, in this case). Similarly, when a friend comments on something I share on Facebook, I am much more likely to return that comment. In doing so, the relationship is strengthened by a common bond or interest.
Thus, my preference of the Nook over the Kindle was not so much about the best device, but about which one will provide me with the better opportunities. And isn’t this what reading is really all about – opportunities? Opportunities to experience something you normally wouldn’t be able to, opportunities to learn from the wisest mentors in history, and opportunities to think about one’s own existence from a different perspective. As literary critic Harold Bloom shares,
“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”
This is why we read – we read to better ourselves, to expand our minds, to understand the world around us, and to find a challenging joy – a difficult pleasure. Thankfully, my Nook has allowed me this difficult pleasure. While I know a Kindle would have met that need just as well, I guess in the end, I just couldn’t imagine choosing a device that limits opportunities for reading.
The other thought that runs through my mind (especially when I read articles like this one from CNN, reporting that Amazon now sells more digital than physical books) is what future generations will think of us as a result of this technology. I just recently started reading 1776, and as I read about the history of the American Revolution, I am struck by how most of the information in McCullough’s book is gleaned from letters and other hand-written documents. Because historical figures such as George Washington and William Emerson, Sr. engaged in such hand-written correspondence, we have a record of not only the events that occurred, but also the thoughts and emotions of the people involved. Will future generations be able to look back on us and say the same? Will emails, chats, phone calls, and digital books stand the test of time in the same way that ancient manuscripts have? Or will they disappear from the human consciousness, much like the original internet websites have slipped from our minds? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, but I can’t help but wonder what the consequences will be of this rapid advance in technology. As Isaac Asimov pointed out,
“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
Are we thinking forward about the consequences of this sort of change? Have we considered what the ramifications are – how the world will be? I just don’t have an answer.