Reading and Physicality

Today’s news post on Dear Author had a link to a blog post about literary fiction (lit fic) and how lit fic readers don’t want to read on e-readers–they want want physical books.

But the topic of this post isn’t about lit fic and what lit fic readers will and won’t read on, since I don’t actually read much lit fic myself, having never really enjoyed most of what I’ve picked up.  No, what I wanted to talk about is physicality and memory and how that relates to the whole e-reader vs. hard copy debate.  (And no, I won’t get into digital rights and lending and resale and all that.  Those debates are beyond the scope of this particular post.)

To begin with, I should say that I do a lot of my reading now on my smart phone.  About 99% of the books I buy are e-books; I just don’t buy hard copies of books very much anymore.  Mostly it’s about convenience for me, since I can now buy books right from my phone and don’t have to go into a store or wait for it to be delivered.  But I do make weekly trips to the library and read about 2-3 physical books each week.  So while I’m not exclusively an e-reader, I think I’m slowly moving in that direction.

And one thing that I find that I really miss with an e-book is the physicality of the experience of reading.  The unique cover, font, cut of the pages, and heft of a physical book just isn’t there with my palm sized smart phone.  The physical experience, the tactile memories that I made before with reading just aren’t happening with reading on my phone.  And I find that I miss that.

For example, one of my favorite romance novels is Enchanted by Elizabeth Lowell.  I distinctly remember the purple foil cover of this book and, as Mrs. Giggles terms it, the “Naked Medieval Guy” stepback.  Those images were a vital part of the experience when I first read that book.  Stupidly, I gave that book away when I moved across the state.  I have an e-copy now, but reading the e-copy is different from that shiny purple paperback.  Not better, not worse, just different.

I also have a very battered, water marked copy of Gone With the Wind that’s been with me since middle school.  The book is water marked because at one point in high school, I dropped it into the dog’s water bowl.  I distinctly remember fishing it out of the bowl, and carefully drying it in the sun to try to save it.  It’s battered now, but still readable.  And of course, dropping it into the water bowl didn’t make me appreciate the actual story more; it was just a little personal thing for myself, something to bring a small smile to my face whenever I take that book off the shelf.  Now, if I were to drop my smart phone in the dog’s water?  Definitely would not be a fond memory.

I don’t write this to be a luddite and say down with e-books and wish that things were back to the good old days.  I think that the e-book revolution will bring awesome advantages to both readers and authors in the next few years.  Heck, it’s already pretty awesome looking out there in the reading world.  But we’re also losing something in the shift to digital.  So, while I celebrate the good things that are coming from it, that doesn’t mean I can’t also mourn what we’re losing as well.

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