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On the Contrary: Kindle is not the end of books [BOOK WEEK 2!]

Happy book week, Fierce & Nerdy! This being the holiday shopping season, books are on my mind even more than usual. That’s because bar none, hands down, books are my favorite gift to both give and receive. This opinion might soon be antiquated, however. Electronic reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle are this seasons hottest gift, and now that they are becoming reasonably affordable people are starting to proclaim the obsolescence of traditional books.

The obvious parallel to the rise of e-book readers would be the iPod and how it completely changed the music business. Both are sleek electronic devices that allow for instant gratification in buying product online and experiencing it immediately on the device. Both make it possible and efficient to transport a huge library of music or reading material while taking up very little space. And both are really well designed gadgets that are pleasurable simply to hold and play with.

But wait. This parallel does not hold up, because books are not the same as records, CDs, or DVDs. Those items are merely delivery devices for content. We don’t care much about the packaging and feel of a compact disc—we want what is on it. The same can be said of the movies on DVDs, which could explain why DVD sales are down in favor of streaming and On Demand services. These items are packages for content the way the can is for a Diet Coke. We don’t care about the container—we just want the Coke.

Books, on the other hand, are not simply about content. If they were, then the book business would have suffered through the years from the public library system, which allows free and easy access to any book. Yet we continue to buy books, and many of us (me at least) have shelves lined with books we may never get around to reading, but nevertheless value. I doubt I would value a bunch of electronic files in the same way.

Other people can argue about the romanticism of holding a book, feeling its pages, its texture, its smell, its weight. I appreciate all of these things, but I also recognize that a Kindle has its own strengths in its reading experience. What this comes down to is really a matter of taste. There are some things about books, though, that an electronic tablet can never emulate. Here I submit the key three reasons that e-Books can never replace their forebears completely.

Books Go Where Electronics Fear to Tread

No matter how small, durable, and long lasting an electronic reading device is, the fact remains that it is a piece of technology. This means that there is an inherent fragility to it, and a limitation to its lifespan. Its battery might last a long time, but eventually it will need to be recharged. Now and for the foreseeable future it will need to be switched off and stowed away in your carry-on luggage during takeoff and landing in air travel. Taking it on backcountry camping expeditions would not be advisable. And though I’m sure some brave souls have dared to read their Kindle in the bathtub, I would not recommend it. Incidentally, travel, camping, and lounging in the tub all happen to be ideal times to crack open a book, so for the time being the ratty old mass market paperback has the edge on the sleek e-reader.

Books Make More Personal Gifts than Gift Certificates

We all enjoy getting iTunes gift certificates for Christmas. Giving a person options like that can actually be very thoughtful, allowing them to get something they actually want instead of taking a risk that your gift will be in a Goodwill donation box before the New Year. But I prefer the risk of getting someone something that is personal and specifically from me. Gift cards are great, but I never remember who got me what. When someone gives me a book, it is there, and whether I read it or not I am happy to have it, since it always carries the potential for me to read it. And while there might be a capacity to give specific e-books to people, giving them a computer file isn’t the same as giving them an object that can sit on their shelf and can be signed by the author (or the gifter).

The book oft proclaims the man.

Books are fashion and social markers every bit as much as our clothing is. Yes, we read for what a book contains, but oftentimes we also read for other people to see us reading. On a plane or in a coffee shop, I always like to look around and see what others are reading. I assume they do the same with me, and it has led to many great meetings and conversations. It also can be a good way to meet like-minded members of the opposite sex. I’m very conscious of my public reading choices. When I know I might be on display, I’d probably choose Gabriel Garcia Marquez over Robert Heinlein (not that there’s anything wrong with STARSHIP TROOPERS).

With a Kindle, it would be a rude invasion of someone’s space to peak over a shoulder and try to determine what is being read. You could always ask them, but then you run the risk of discovering they are halfway through Glenn Beck’s latest opus and have been dying to tell someone all about it.

Aside from public displays of literature, there is the matter of the home space. To me, a place has never felt like a home unless it has shelves of books. They make nice decorations, say something about your personality, and are in fact functional. You can reread old favorites or lend them to friends. People have not been talking about this, but with everything turning electronic, I begin to wonder what we are we going to do with all the new space in our homes? Where once we had shelves of records, drawers of DVDs, and racks of CDs, we now have—nothing. Sure, you can hang posters and pictures on your wall, but without books what can a visitor to your place snoop through to get an idea what you are like? Clicking through your computer or personal electronic device just seems a creepy. A bookshelf is an open display of your personality and tastes that invites others to explore.

Ultimately, the relationship between paper books and e-books is more analogous to theatrical movie going than it is to digital music consumption. For the foreseeable future, there will be room for both. Consumption of movies at home through On Demand and streaming services is growing, but people will always need to have somewhere to go out to, so the theatrical business will remain. Likewise, e-readers will grow and be excellent for newspaper and magazine disbursements, but people will always need real books to fill out their shelves.

So again, happy Book Week. I look forward to many more to come.