What is a book? Is it the printed matter found on the pages? Is it a collection of sheets bound by a cover? Is it an idea frozen in time? Or is it, an idea with a personality of its own?
Probably the format & idea of books hasn’t changed much since the mass popularity and proliferation of printing press after Gutenberg, till the advent of eBooks. Digitization is affecting the book industry as much as it has affected all the other things it touched. Like music, we are now left wondering, if it is the song/book that matters (aka a file) or is the experience of walking to a music/book store, browsing through the cover art, holding the record/book in hand, probably listening to a song or two/reading a page or two, that give music/books a personality that have endeared them to us. Or am I just a hopeless romantic hanging on to an outdated idea?
I love the personality of a physical book (can we call them pbooks? Like ebooks?), but also the affordability and convenience of a ebook. I’m in love with both (which feels like cheating them both) and, I feel torn.
2005-2010 was a good time for bookstores & book lovers in Hyderabad. We saw new additions of Landmark, Odyssey & Crossword, to the ever present AA Hussain’s and Walden. Finally reading was becoming mainstream. But, things started to change on a microscopical level during the same years — iPhone was released, broadband became common, Wifi was on the rise & Flipkart was gaining momentum. So, things changed. In the last few years, with proliferation of internet, smartphones and online shopping, I saw Odyssey close majority of its bookstores, Crossword reduced to half its size, Landmark on the brink of closure and AA Hussain’s shutting down. When I walk into what is left of Walden or Landmark, I see them more as novelty shops than bookstores. Gifts, toys, stationery, sports equipment occupy the prime and main aisles with books only as an after thought. No need to blame them I guess. Economics just changed and even I (however reluctantly) contributed to it. Amazon and Flipkart offer books at huge discounts that these brick and mortar stores don’t or ever can offer, not to mention ebooks. I don’t think there’s a ‘going back’ from here. By now, all of us know that there’s no bright future for bookshops and the news coming from all over the world just confirms this.
Internet, digitization, online bookstores, have changed the business of books like never before. How have these changes affect ‘reading’ as a hobby? How has the hobby & habit changed (for me)?
Prior to the internet, it was books (either own or of the library), newspapers or magazines that we read, but now, with cellphones in our hand tethered to the net (where a lot of writing happens these days), a lot of reading happens on these devices. Cellphones are pocket computers and used for almost everything, consequently we wanted to read our books also on these devices. At-least that’s how I first felt about ebooks. As a die-hard proponent of pbooks, I resisted the shift towards anything e for a long time. But, I couldn’t go past the idea of carrying my entire library in my pocket. So, reluctantly I first started buying ebook versions of my favourite books, but soon, I started finding more and better books (that were not available in the local bookshops) that could be ordered with a click and delivered in seconds. Still, pbooks were my primary source of reading which did not change till I got a Kindle two years ago.
I read around 70 books on my Kindle in the first year and before long it became my main source of reading. A couple of months back I wanted to move to the ‘physical’ realm for my son. He was hooked to iPads than books and would often mistake my Kindle for a tablet. I wanted to lead by example. So, I bought pbooks instead of ebooks. It was like going home. I was now torn. Do I give up on my trusty Kindle? Or, on pbooks? Like Ross Geller who made a list on Rachel Green, I made a list – Kindle vs. pbooks.
- Carry your entire library in your pocket.
- Can be read at night.
- Easy on the eyes.
- Books can be downloaded instantly.
- Notes & highlights can be exported, neatly formatted using clippings.io.
- Do not occupy physical space.
- They are not pbooks.
- Limited font options.
- Ebooks never started a conversation. (Not that I had many earlier).
- Dependent on technology, electricity, or a company.
- Unlike pbooks, for ebooks, the personality is offloaded to the ebook reader. Since books are nothing but files here, the touch and feel of the device we use determines how we feel about the book. And, devices might have to be upgraded every few years.
- Books cannot be easily shared.
- Not easy to move between pages. (Does not feel intuitive).
- Exporting highlights and notes is not easy. (Clippings.io does a superb job of exporting highlights, but it is not free).
So, basically Kindle is limited by the same technology that makes it great.
- They are real. You can touch/feel them. You can smell the pages.
- Highlighting & note taking is easy.
- Easy to move between pages.
- Books on shelves are good conversation starters.
- Easily shareable.
- Not dependent on electricity, technology, device or company.
- Come in variety of shapes, covers & sizes & fonts adding personality to them.
- They show age. A battered copy of ‘Little house on the prairie’ always reminds me of the cold mornings I read the book twenty years back.
- Can support your local bookshop.
- They occupy space, collect dust and require regular cleaning.
- Have wear & tear.
- Cannot be read at night without some light source.
- Books in India are not of the best of quality. In India, in order to bring down the prices, every publisher offers versions of books that can be sold only in India, Sri Lanka & Pakistan. The quality of these books is pretty cheap compared to their counterparts that are sold in Western/first world countries. This brings down the ‘collectible’ aspect of pbooks.
- Not mobile. All books cannot be carried on self.
- Neither buying or delivery of pbooks is instant.
I simply cannot makeup my mind. I don’t think I can. Is one format better than the other? I ended up where I started with no answer. It raised a number of questions in my mind. What is a book at the end of the day? Is it the content? Or is it more than just words?