Do we really want to curl up with an e-book?

E-books and e-readers work well with page-turners, best-sellers, and text-heavy tomes -- not so well when a book needs images or a book-lover needs the look and feel of ink and paper.

By , Editor

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    The Kindle 2 electronic reader is shown at an Amazon.com news conference in New York, in this February 2009 file photo.
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As the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers grow in popularity, book lovers find themselves standing where two roads diverge.

One way, at least for now, works best when message is more important than medium. The e-reader is great for textbooks and bestsellers, not so great when graphics, photos, and other embellishments are needed. “Introduction to Philosophy” and the latest Stephen King page-turner are good e-reader candidates. (Recognizing the utility of e-readers, the Monitor will be available on several of them in the very near future.)

But many books can’t easily be reduced to byte size – at least not yet. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” and James Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times” would be sadly diminished without their charming illustrations. A cookbook sans mouth-watering images is thin gruel. A gardening book without spring blooms is a wintry experience.

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E-readers are not yet enabled for visuals beyond the gray scale. That will change as technology and battery life improve (for a deep look at e-books, see this Monitor article). Eventually, the experience will be like the Internet. Want to make the perfect omelet? You can read about it in any basic cookbook, but on the Web you can also watch a video, post a comment, and participate in a real-time colloquy on egg-flipping. That’s undeniably useful.

Like newspapers, however, books are more than information delivery devices. Their physicality is cherished, perhaps more than any other dead-tree medium. They are totems in our lives. To cradle a book and read slowly is an intimate experience in which you encounter an author’s unfolding ideas and skillful language. A reader can usually recall where and when he worked his way through a long novel.

It is usually best to choose a nicely made hardcover book for the experience. I once spent a long winter on Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” savoring a page or two a night. The worlds of Gabriel García Márquez and Vladimir Nabokov opened for me in the same way. Oh, I had a fast familiarity with these authors from crash readings in college, but a slow read is something different.

Now when I see those volumes on a shelf, memories return. I vividly recall the feel of the pages, the useful beauty of the typeface, the workability of a well-bound spine, the seasons slowly morphing, the crackle of a fire, a Scottie snoring, and my wife teasing me about taking forever to finish.

It’s unlikely that years from now a first-
generation Kindle or Nook will trigger as rich a remembrance of things past. Old tech is more a curiosity than a souvenir of travels in realms of gold. This is why libraries and bookstores are our safe houses in the world (and why, if I may be bold, Christian Science Reading Rooms have fans well outside the denomination).

Is the book doomed? As with newspapers, the economics of printing and distribution may eventually become untenable. It is also likely that the e-reader will reach an evolutionary dead end as smaller, faster laptops and smarter smart phones emerge. Why carry more devices than you need?

Saying goodbye to the physical package of the book will be hard. Books wear out, but over such a long period of time that they seem immortal. They are passed along more than thrown away. Discovered in an attic trunk or at the back of a garage sale, marked up with the excited reactions of earlier readers, books are time machines. You can annotate a Nook and Kindle as well, but not in earnest penmanship on a mellow-smelling page. For now, we have both words on paper and words on pixels.

We can travel both roads.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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