Thursday, November 10, 2011

On bibliophilia, and why I want a Kindle for Christmas

I've always been one of those people resisting the growing e-book market. But tonight I went to a talk that gave me some really interesting things to think about...First, some reflections about books and reading, and the future of books and reading.

My mother passionately loves books and loves to read, I grew up with classic stories and with local treasures, and these memories are always with me. My dad introduced me to the adventures of Jack London, and his parents have a library which is a truly magical place. And there have been many days when my sisters have stayed in bed all day with a book, and when we have fought over whose turn it was to get the next Harry Potter.

I love the weight of a book in my hand, I like the excitement when you can feel that there are only a few pages left to turn. I like to collect books and own them, see them on my bookshelf and think about where those books  have brought me. Unlike my sister E, who is a true bookworm, I don't usually re-read books, but I still like to have them. Sometimes I do feel that it's more a kind of collecting. The books take on a different function when they enter the bookshelf. And there are different kinds of reading...Now that I am a full-time, eternal student and teacher, I read differently, and I read different kinds of texts differently. I still love to consume a good novel, and be driven by a story, but I also enjoy the different pace and challenge of a difficult poem or story.

Also, the places of reading are amazing places. I had an earlier post about libraries in Berlin, but also independent bookstores, and even bigger chain bookstores. I was really really sad to see the downtown Borders close in Ann Arbor, the site of the first Borders, and subsequently see the whole chain follow. 

So all of these thoughts and memories and feelings were already a part of my experience when I went to this evening's talk, entitled "Was ist das Wesen des Buches?" (roughly) "What is the book?" (The German word "Wesen" means nature/character/essence), and with the subtitle "Ruth Klüger: Reading Differently, Confessions of an avid e-book reader". Ruth Klüger is a German-American academic and author, most famously of the book weiter leben (Still alive).

Some background info: Germany does not at all have the e-book culture that is growing steadily in the U.S. Surprisingly, I have yet to see someone reading an e-book on the subway, or in public in general. Always newspapers and paper books. Also, Germany has many more independent bookshops. They do have a few big chains, but also lots of little Buchhandlungen.
note that the cheapest version is $79...

Ruth Klüger, the invited speaker, talked about how popular e-books have become in the US, especially among older people, because you can adjust the font size, and they are easy to hold and comfortable to lug around with you. She talked about the ease of ordering books with one click after reading an interesting review, and how she reads more books more quickly with the e-reader. She talked about how e-books are less expensive and some, out of copyright, are even free. She attributed the popularity in the US in part to the fact that we have a "Wegwerfgesellschaft", a "culture of throwing things out/away". She said, people in the US tend more to pass on or get rid of books they have already read, rather than hold on to them, put them in a library. (This Wegwerfgesellschaft, in general, describes the trend to throw things out instead of having them replaced, use plastic dishes, etc, which is, in general, true, I would say, of our culture.) There was also a publisher present who has a hybrid traditional/e-book publishing house, who also commented and answered questions. In general, all of the comments presented by the panel discussed the growing trend towards e-books as an unstoppable trend which is not going to make paper books disappear, but which will be a somewhat parallel development. It was not completely pro e-book, but did make arguments for their usefulness, for their place in reading culture.
...and the German version is 99 EUROS for the US $79 one

Then the debate began (Q&A session). Interesting. And made me increasingly angry. What disturbed me most was the way Germans talked about the US and the tone of some of their remarks, with an air of superiority, arrogance, and discomforting nostalgia. (I'm all for critiquing the US, just as I can critique German culture, but what gets to me is the arrogant tone. It makes me defensive.) If you've read this far, you can see that a big part of me also wants to attack e-books and hold out for the experience of holding a real book in your hand.  But when I heard people making their arguments, I wanted to be more open about these changes. Here are some of the more impressionable remarks:

1. One guy brought up the comment about America's "Wegwerfgesellschaft" and talked about how nice it was to own keep books (again, in a slight tone of arrogance about Germans vs Americans). Now, I am an avid book-collector. But I will admit, sometimes it gets out of hand. How many of the books on my shelf have I read? How much has it cost to acquire this collection? Books can also become a fetish, and buying them can also be a bit obsessive. It's also a marker of social class, and of education. Someone brought up how it's a part of a certain kind of living/household aesthetic, to have big, filled bookshelves. In Germany there is this idea of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie, that has more of a (classed) tradition than in the US. Owning bookshelves is a kind of status symbol. Once I heard about someone (a famous writer maybe?) who would leave a book in public somewhere every time he finished reading it, hoping someone else would pick it up and enjoy it. The idea stuck with me. How liberating! How would that lighten the load of earthly possessions you have!  Ruth Klüger mentioned that houses in the future will look differently, that the e-book industry will impact the way we collect, own, and display books. Maybe she will be right. Maybe it has already started?

2. One student talked about how Germans should be proud that they have held out against e-books, that they, and Europeans in general still have a book culture, and still read real books. She also made some remark about how the German language is dying out anyways being influenced from English.  I kinda wanted to yell at her. (But didn't, decided to blog instead. hehe) First of all, this talk of "culture" and "European culture" and "heritage" is a very specifically classed (and privileged!) culture. It is not all Europeans that are collecting massive libraries. Second, while it is true that German incorporates quite a few English words in technological fields (das Internet, der Computer, die Email, das E-Book), by and large it is not being affected by English. Not any less than it has been, at other times, fashionable to throw in French words. This whole discussion was very German in German German, and would not have been understandable to an English, non-German speaker!  The publisher had a great response to this comment: "I'm going to answer a bit polemically...sorry, but we are always 4-5 years behind the US. In a few years, we too will have e-books making up a large amount of the book market..."

There were other comments, about whether reading on an e-reader changes the experience of reading (best point), and how books connect us to memories and to family members who have passed them down to us (this will also probably trickle out...). About how this makes reading more affordable for students, whether academic texts will be published as e-versions, whether instructors will assign electronic books in class some day (the audience laughed, but in Michigan I heard that our German textbook will soon be printed electronically!).

Throughout, I couldn't help but think about how many different kinds of reading there are. There is reading in the subway on your daily commute, there is reading in bed before sleep, there is with a pen and notepad in the library, there is all-day-Sunday-afternoon reading, there are Jane Austen novels and Harry Potter fantasy stories and classic literature and poetry... And although I will never stop buying books, adding to my impossible collection, and and mourning the loss of local bookstores, I think it might be nice to get some Kleist, or Dickens (for free!) on an e-reader for my next trip across the ocean. Or maybe even for my next U-Bahn commute.

Do you have an e-reader? How would you describe "American" reading culture? I welcome your comments!


  1. Love the topic :)

    I went to a similar talk at Hatcher about a month ago and I actually wished that you were there! What I didn't like was that the speaker very much had the attitude that everything would just work out for the best. There was a lot of discussion about the future of the publishing industry and how much of it seems to be shifting away from big publishing houses, and when asked how he thought quality would be controlled/affected, his answer was more or less, "Well, it has to work out". So that was a bit disappointing.

    Otherwise, it did a lot in convincing me that having an e-reader (in addition to using the library and buying books!) is the way to go. After all, the "book" is really just the storage place for the ideas held within, and so if it really is about the *content*, how it is housed should not matter. (Rest assured, I love the feel of a book in my hand, but I thought that was a very good point.)

    Also, especially if I am to go to grad school any time soon, seeing the ease of downloading .pdfs directly to an e-reader and not having to waste so much paper - having it available to read anywhere is extremely attractive. As is the idea of free books :)

  2. Glad you responded. :) I agree, it's maybe optimistic to say "everything will work out." The last local bookstore in Duluth closed this year. It's sad. It changes the way we interact with literature and reading. But on a personal level, I will definitely think about reading some books on an e-reader. Like you said, it's still about accessing the content. And you can be transported into the world of the book through an e-reader, too, I suppose.

  3. Loved this post :) I still love having both options with books...the convenience of being able to order books instantly online can be extremely useful... and at the same time there are certain times when its nice to actually physically hold a book rather than staring at a screen. For me nothing can compare to curling up with a blanket, tea, and a Harry Potter book in my hands! I also have a soft spot for books purposefully and sometimes very creatively organized on shelves (organizing them by color for example). They can undoubtedly be a statement-making accessory in the interior design world... ever heard of Check it out if you haven't! :)

  4. oh, thanks for the bookshelf link! :) Very beautiful pictures. Want to give yourself away? :)

  5. this is anna. i didn't have my name linked up when commented. :)

  6. We already use a lot of electronic books through my library's website, and increasingly doctors use online articles/books simply due to the time it cuts down searching everything on the computer versus finding a book and then looking up the appropriate part in the book!
    Interesting post, thrynny! I love books and reading, but get very excited about kindles and the efficiency, ease, and proliferation of reading that they allow :) I do think it will "work out for the best" and that quality literature will always be recognized as such.