MOLLY SCHOEMANN: I’m too broke to shell out for a Kindle or a Nook or any other kind of eBook reader, but that’s ok, because I’m frankly a little confused about the less tangible benefits of owning one. Sure, it lets you bring several dozen books with you on a trip without having to lug them around. I can see the convenience there. And you can download and read a new book within minutes, although I don’t mind borrowing books or tracking them down—and I love getting that tell-tale package delivered from Amazon. I like instant gratification as much as the next girl, but I would like to note that it doesn’t matter how fast you get a new book, you’re still going to read it at your normal speed. Having instant access to thousands of titles through an eBook reader would probably just stress me out by forcing me to confront the vast number of books out there I want to read and when will I possibly read them all?!
Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m just being a big whiny whiner by not buying into the eBook craze. Still, I’m worried about the fact that eBooks are becoming more and more popular, and ultimately, when you get right down to it, they’re not books– they’re essentially software. And you don’t technically own them; you’re licensing them for your use. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the actual ownership? I love lending books to my friends; I’m not sure how that works with eBooks, but for starters, I’m pretty sure both people have to at least have an eBook reader, so I’m automatically disqualified there. When it comes to lending actual books, you both just have to have hands.
I’ll also admit I’m a bit of a brutal book owner; while I love books, I don’t always treat them with the reverence they deserve. But I part of this is me being possessive. By writing my name in my book; by dog-earing a page when I’m at a good stopping place, I’m essentially saying, “This book is mine. MINE.” How do you do this with an e-Book? How do you feel a connection to it? You can’t take notes in the margins, you can’t dog-ear the page with a favorite passage. The books I’ve carried around with me for weeks and months at a time as I’ve read them on the train or at the beach bear the stains, smudges and bent covers of the experience of being read by me. When you finish reading an eBook, whether it’s for the first time or the hundredth, it looks the same. I don’t think I like that.
So let’s try to keep in mind that while eBook readers are great, when it comes to the full reading experience, there’s nothing quite like the real thing, either.
HANNAH WALK: I don’t own an e-book reader either, but as is the norm in my generation (I’m on the young end of the 18-25 market), I spend a lot of time reading on my computer. I read newspapers from all over the world (everything from Le Monde Diplomatique, the English version of France’s Le Monde, to TMZ), I do crossword puzzles, I use Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. Then, when I get tired of all of those media outlets, I comb the web for short fiction and amusing blogs. It never ceases to amaze me that I can consume all of that information without having any personal claim to it.
When you read a book or a newspaper, you don’t own the story. You own a copy of it. The physical book belongs to you, but not the information. When you pay for a book, it is your acknowledgment that you are consuming information that isn’t yours. “But, Hannah” you’ll say, “of course it’s mine. I own the book. It’s my property.” This is the frame of mind that’s causing problems for media sharing. Yes, the book is yours; the binding, the pages, the ink, even the curlicues you drew in the margin. The words are not yours. The characters are not yours.
By lending your treasured tome to a friend, you are giving them a share in the knowledge, but they are no more an owner of it than you are. With many e-readers, you can also share with your friends through email. Even though I don’t have my own e-reading contraption, I have a pdf reader on my computer that allows me to read my favorite tales in a paperless format and share them with my friends and family.
It took me some time to get used to reading novels on my computer. For newbies to electronic reading, I would suggest starting with a story you know and love. My first e-read was Peter Pan, by JM Barrie. My paper copy of the book is filled with cramped notes, highlighting and girlish doodles. The additions I’ve made to the book are my own, but I still don’t own Peter Pan. I have a book with the words of Barrie’s story and I have an electronic file with the words of the story, but Peter Pan doesn’t belong to me.
All media is the property of the creator, we just own a share of the experience.
LAURA ROBERTS: I find the notion that we don’t “own” e-books a bit weird, especially given the almost random pricing publishers are doling out at this point in time. Sure, I don’t mind buying the rights to read an entire book for, maybe, $5 a pop… but at an almost hardcover price of $25? Yeah, I’d be wanting a more permanent or tangible form of ownership, if only for the marginalia that Molly and Hannah have mentioned.
There is definitely a nostalgia factor with paper books, and nothing can beat being able to pass along a copy of a good book to a good friend—or having one of these gems passed along to you. However, the convenience of being able to take one small reader with hundreds of reading options on a trip, or to a long line at the doctor’s office, is pretty darn appealing.
That being said, these digital forms of ownership kind of bug me. Take the way you “own” a domain name. If you really and truly owned the name after purchase, why would you have to pay for it again and again, year after year? You must only really be renting it from someone… but who really owns that name, if not you? It doesn’t add up. I can understand paying for hosting, as a place to put all your digital stuff that lives at that domain, but paying for a name? It’s like paying for air.
Similarly, I wonder what we are paying for if we don’t actually own the digital copies we are paying for. Can we somehow digitally dog-ear pages, doodle in the margins, or otherwise make these copies our own, even if we don’t truly own an author’s words, as Hannah suggests? After all, do we as readers not make these words our own by the very fact of reading, engaging, digesting the author’s thoughts? We all know we didn’t write Shakespeare’s infamous lines, but if we have connected with his work, we do own his plays, in the sense that we have entered his world and accepted that yes, it’s all a stage where we strut and fret before our brief candles flame out.
Perhaps the digital age will help us all achieve enlightenment, once we realize that the concept of ownership is at the root of most (if not all) of our human troubles? Enjoy your moment of Zen.