It’s May 28th around 9:30 in the morning. I’m guessing about the time because every clock in the house is off due to a power outage, and my watch is too far away to bother with. As I sit listening to the hum of my neighbor’s generator, I think about my other emergency kit. Not the one with batteries, flashlights, water, duct tape and whatnot. I’m talking about my list of things to do when I have no electricity.
For years, the top of that list has been ‘Read a Book.’ Today, the question dawned on me: What if I go completely digital in my reading? How long would an eReader battery sustain my primary activity if the power were out for days? Will I find myself visiting my generator-owning neighbors asking, “Please sir, may I power up my tablet?” Will I join an anxious mob at the local bookstore chanting, “Must have books… must have books…”? No doubt, it’s a serious problem.
I had my first chance to try an eReader on a vacation when my sister, Colleen, brought along her Gameboy and a cartridge of public domain books. A novel by G. K. Chesterton called The Napoleon of Notting Hill caught my eye due to an off-kilter, Monty Python kind of humor. Even with a screen only a quarter the size of a standard paperback page, I found the read enjoyable. I didn’t finish reading the book before the end of the vacation because Colleen, oddly enough, wanted to play games with her Gameboy.
When eBooks started making the scene, I didn’t know how the technology should or would fit into my life. My questioning the role stemmed from my sense of wanting to “do no harm.” From that perspective, I wanted to understand if authors would gain or lose from digital books. Also, how would the technology affect the local economy? Brick and mortar bookstores fuel the local economy in many ways and especially by employing people from the communities they serve. Indirect support comes from the delivery channels it takes to keep the shelves full. At least when you buy from Amazon you still help the local economy via the delivery pipeline. With eBooks, you cut out all benefits after the initial purchase of the eReader.
With time, it’s become clear that digital publishing can be a big boon to authors. Unfortunately, brick and mortar bookstores have not been fairing so well. While I believe that bookstores will not disappear completely, we haven’t reached a comfort point of knowing how many will survive.
After I returned home from that vacation with Colleen, I went to the bookstore to pick up a copy of the G.K. Chesterton book and found they did not stock it. This is the first time I couldn’t find a book I wanted in a local store – a truly paradigm shifting moment for a booklover like me. With the book in the public domain and no money to be made by an author, I decided to load the book to my smartphone and further test the experience. I found some very good reasons for adopting eBooks:
I can carry a large number of books at the same time without a bone-breaking, heavy backpack
- No matter where I’m at, if I have a few minutes I have something to read
- If I want something new to read, I can download a new book instantly
Yet, there are some good reasons to continue purchasing books on paper:
I can’t write in the margins of eBooks
- Flipping through an eBook to find a certain passage is harder to do without the spatial memory you need to help remember the location
- It pretty much takes an act of God to destroy a paper book, but one momentary act of human stupidity can wipe out an entire electronic library
So, that brings me back to sitting in my house with no power, wondering what I would do without something to read. The answer is: I’m not going to let that happen. Truly, there is room for both literary forms in the world. It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both. I want the books that mean the most to me to live on my bookshelves and share my space. The ones that I enjoy in transience can exist on an eReader. And the books I want with me during an act of God will be in my emergency kit.
Author’s Note: What books would you pick to be in your ‘emergency kit?’