Paper or Plastic?

The last few weeks I’ve done a lot of travelling, and this has gotten me thinking about books and how I read them.

When I first got my hands on a Kindle ten years ago this August, I knew I was holding something special. Back then not a lot of books had made the digital leap, but even with those that had, you knew you were at the cusp of something. Holding this “light” device in my hand, I could have the equivalent of dozens, even hundreds, of books. It was mind-blowing. Like many, I vowed to go digital. And I did. For a while.

But there’s something about paper books that always draws me back. The feel in your hand, the tactile sensation of turning the page. Yes, even the smell of books. I was in a High School library last week (Go, Warriors!) and would have known it even if you had led me there blindfolded. The smell of those books is unmistakable.

The problem with paper books, of course, is that they’re physical. While they are often cheaper than their digital counterparts (if you’re willing to buy used), they have volume and space that we can’t always afford. Yes, I’m contradicting myself a little – the very thing I love about books, their tangible interactive weight, is the same thing that detracts from them.

On my first (and planned) trip, I flew down to the home office in San Francisco. I’m reading Memories of Ice as my fiction read currently, and if you know the Malazan titles, you know none of them are small. MoI is no exception at 1,000 printed pages strong. I found it awkward and even difficult at times, like when I’m waiting around airports, to drag out this two-inch thick hardback and just flip it open to read for a few minutes. And carrying that beast is equally awkward – it takes up so much room in my carry on, the buckles bend to be able to close it.

There are arguments that slow me down from whole heartedly flipping to all digital again.

First, there’s the long-term (and I mean long term) future of Amazon to consider. Sure, I can still access books I bought for the Kindle ten years ago and read them no, no sweat. But will that always be the case?

There’s also the argument, at least with non-fiction, of being able to open up and reference multiple books at once when researching. Not as easily done with digital, and frankly I find the state of e-book searching (and just as importantly, indexing) to be weak. My mental indexing (I remember reading about this on this corner of the left page about of a third way through, some time after X happened but before the map inserts) tends to yield cleaner, more concise results.

Finally, there’s the “legacy” factor. I want my kids to be able to stop by a bookcase at any time and explore something interesting. I want them to feel comfortable reading for fun, grabbing what they want and bringing it back later.

And then I had my second, unexpected trip.

My Gran, Elsie Cummings, passed away on Jan 29. Among all of my memories (and there are more than a blog post could ever do justice), germane are the memories of her bookcases. Gran was an avid reader of American history, in particular the American Revolutionary War through the aftermath of the American Civil War. Histories, narratives, biographies, she read them all. To this day – and it’s been more than a few decades since I’d stayed under roof for any extended time – I can still remember the authors and covers of many of those books. That period of American history has never been my greatest interest, but I remember growing up surrounded by it and those books thanks to Gran.

Only, now that Gran has passed, there is no legacy to those books. Even if I could get a hold of someone to ship them to me (assuming no one else in the family had lain claim), the sheer expense of shipping that many books, the space they would take up when they arrived, and the lack of vested interested doesn’t make it worth it.

Which brings me back to my own books. I kid myself if I think any books I buy would have a lasting home with my children. They have their interests, their passions and niche genres, and they aren’t mine (and good for them!) Physical books, autographed copies aside, are really for my own vanity.

So why is paper or plastic such a hard decision?

I imagine at it’s heart, some of it has to do with that feeling you get (if you’re like me) when you see a picture of someone’s bookcases. Am I an avid viewer of bookporn, especially if the bookcases have titles I’m familiar with. Why? Partly to see books you know in a different context, but also to see what gems you might have missed. This person shared my interests in these books we both own, maybe the parts of their collection that I don’t know will be interesting too.

There’s also the lack of decent organization on the Kindle (and yes, I’m focussed only Amazon’s product because, frankly, it’s the one I have). After years of your digital library just being a giant, vaguely sortable (by author, title, or “recently accessed”) list, Amazon added “Collections.” But collections aren’t easily managed, and do nothing to declutter the screen of your average Kindle. Maybe if you could set a default view of “Collections, and things not in collections” that would be a start, but since the default view is just the monster list of books (and after ten years of reading on a Kindle, there’s a lot to that monster that is ugly and voluminous) browsing a Kindle library is still like reading through just one really long bookshelf. Maybe this has improved – I admit to neglecting to re-evaluate Collections after they were introduced and failed to live up to my expectations.

If you’ve read this far, I’m afraid I may be about to disappoint you – I have no conclusion to this essay. I’m sharing these rambles as much to get them out of my head as to get them into yours. Which, ironically, is the same justification I use for writing fiction.