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Culture

Digital books too much for analogue souls

One of the hot-button issues at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair is whether e-books are inevitable. DW's Jefferson Chase examines the undeniable advantages and potential perils of going digital.

It all started three or four Yuletides past, when my mother suggested that she get me a beer for Christmas. Or at least so I thought until I realized dear old Ma was not talking about the discount Berlin brew Kindl, but rather the Kindle digital reader - the device with which Amazon would love to change our species' intellectual habits.

I'd never previously considered whether I needed to tech up something as basic as reading. Nonetheless, I was taken aback that my mother, already past retirement age in the United States, was happily using a piece of 21st-century technology of which I was barely conscious.

I could have insulated myself from the sneaking suspicion that I was out of touch with arguments about how reading an e-book isn't the same thing as holding a physical volume in your hands and letting your eyes scan lines of ink on paper.

A comforting notion, but not one that washed with me. It's been years - perhaps even a decade - since I last looked anything up in a physical dictionary or encyclopedia. I ceased doing that roughly about the same time I stopped fishing newspapers and magazines out of my letterbox every morning.

Plus, as someone who has spent significant portions of his life writing about books, I could immediately see the advantages of being able to search a fictional text for keywords like any other electronic document. Need a quick overview of flatulence in Goethe, or an instant definition of a word like “faunch?” No problem, I realized, with the latest technology.

Being lazy, of course, I did nothing. Then this year my apartment suddenly started seeming cramped and confined. Having lived at the same address for over a decade, I had accumulated so much stuff that I could no longer see what I truly valued. Some things would have to go. But what?

Woman lying on grass with digital tablet

There's nothing like some sun, fresh air and a good...tablet?

I cast my eyes across my vinyl LPs, my guitars and my 1960s designer furnishings until my gaze finally came to rest … on the bookshelves.

Taking the plunge

Friends of mine were horrified when I announced my intention to divorce myself from my book collection. You spent years getting a PhD, they pleaded. Aren't you going to miss the books you devoted so much of your life to?

I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get sentimental about "Reader-Response Theory: An Overview or Modern Trends in Post-structuralism." I had read "The Dialectic of Enlightenment"in both German and English and found it, to be honest, well short of enlightening.

I did feel a twinge of something (regret, nostalgia, uncertainty?) when I thought of parting with the abstract-yet-lurid covers of 1970s Philip Roth paperbacks or the Magritte-like surrealism of the Penguin editions of William Trevor. Not enough of a twinge, though, to cancel the appointments with the second-hand booksellers who carted away my library in banana boxes.

There were a few books I kept for aesthetic reasons: Chuck Jones' autobiography with a flip-book sequence of Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff or a stunning embossed version of David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

The absence of the rest left me unmoved. The likelihood I was ever going to want to re-read "MagicMountain"was pretty slim, and if I did, I figured, I could just download it.

The question was: what now?

Coming up short

Going digital, I've discovered, involves other choices that I presently feel extremely unqualified to make, starting with the question of which device to read e-books on.

IPads and the like have the advantage of being good for lots of other nifty things I may or may not need or want to do, but I was warned that their glossiness made them less than ideal as readers, and that not all e-books were available in the required formats.

E-book next to stack of paper books

Book-lovers now come in two varieties

Kindles, on the other hand, seemed to make things a bit too easy. They're nice for reading and about the same size as books, but they also strongly encourage you to align yourself as a reader and a consumer with Amazon. A creepy scenario. I don't use my iPod much because I feel that when I download music, iTunes always tries to suck me into its all-pulverizing maw.

Can I get a Kindle and then do my e-shopping somewhere other than Amazon? I don't know and am too skittish to find out.

I also think the number of recent controversies involving e-books is unsettling. There have been instances of books being deleted from people's readers and allegations of price dumping. There are even fears that Amazon's most recent moves into (self-)publishing are an attempt to get rid of publishing houses altogether.

No publishers would mean no editors, and no editing would mean a lot less good writing. Changing the medium may indeed change the message.

Trapped like a shellfish

To commandeer the famous beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," the words “I am the shadow of the waxwing slain” mean just as much on a screen as they do on a page. But I can't shake the fear that if I gave myself up completely to the lure of the digital age, I might be careening toward “the false azure in the window pane.”

To use a simile with a different animal, I suspect that, like many of my generation, I will remain caught between the analogue and digital worlds, between vinyl records and iPods, vintage paperbacks and electronic readers - like a bewildered lobster just clever enough to get into the trap and devour the bait, but by no means sufficiently smart to figure its way back out again.

Or, to put it bluntly: While for me the tactile pleasure of reading an actual book doesn't necessarily outweigh the advantages of consuming words in digital form, I don't want to worry that I'm somehow getting ripped off or being spied upon.

I have little doubt that electronic books are on the rise, but maybe they're just not for me. When my mother asks me what I want for Christmas this year, I doubt a Kindle is going to top the list.

I'll probably just ask her for money and head to a bookshop - as long as they're still around.

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