When I first looked up the tutorial for an e-reader, the Amazon Kindle, I thought that it was absurd. A tutorial to read a book?  E-readers kill the simplicity of the novel. A book doesn’t need a tutorial. You pick it up and you read. A book is a physical thing with pretty covers and pages that you can feel with your hand. As you read you can see how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go. For me, the act of reading consists of sitting in bed with the covers pulled up, a pillow under my head and a paper book in my hand. I’ve never imagined sitting in bed with a piece of plastic, clicking through the pages and I’m not alone. When it comes to e-readers, there are two kinds of people: those all for it and those completely against it. Like Mac users versus PC users, people are adamant.  So, is one really better than the other?

Photo credit: Shuyi Meng

For me, e-readers ruin my dream of having a physical library in my house for my guests to see. I’m an avid reader and as such, I collect books. Like any collector I would like to have a place in my home to proudly display my compilation. If all my books are digital there’s nothing to show. I ranted about this to my friend on a long drive home when she interrupted me. “I thought you’d be pro Kindle.  You’re always trying to declutter your life, throwing things out all the time.” I went quiet. It was true that I try to keep my material possessions down to the bare minimum. Eight moves in the last five years have made me annoyed with possessions that have to be boxed up and carried away. An e-reader would mean less things to pack up and a more space. I tried to reason with myself that I could always buy hard copies of the books I really loved and keep the rest in a digital library. But how would I decide which books to buy? I fall in love with almost every book I read. At the same time, it might be nice to read Chelsea Handler’s “Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea” without constantly having to check if someone is watching and judging me for my choice.

“You should at least look into it,” my friend continued.

She was a fellow English major and I figured if she could be open minded about e-readers, I should at least give them a shot. Not wanting to throw away $259 just to try out a Kindle I decided that I would go online and look at the tutorial.

The tutorial opens with a woman sitting on a beach. When the Kindle is shown I see how small it is, under a third of an inch wide. It looks nothing like a book. The least they could do is ease us into the idea of electronic reading by designing it thick and in the shape of a book. The voice-over said that Kindle uses electronic paper technology to make it easy on the eyes.  Electronic paper technology?  With a name like that I had to resort to Wikipedia.  E-paper, as it’s sometimes called, is designed to look like ink on paper.  “To build e-paper, several different technologies exist, some using plastic substrate and electronics so that the display is flexible,” Wikipedia says.  It seems ridiculous to me.  All this to create the appearance of ink on paper?

The tutorial goes on to talk about Kindle’s built in dictionary. That’s convenient.  I always mean to look words up that I don’t know, but I never get back to them and end up forgetting them. According to the tutorial, Kindle allows you to click the text and the definition appears on the bottom of the electronic page. Kindle even lets you Wikipedia words. That’s definitely a bonus.

Oh no, I’ve become pro Kindle. I had to turn off the tutorial halfway through. I decided that I was overwhelmed with good advertising and needed to take a break before I let the bias opinion take over my own.

I logged onto my Twitter to distract myself and saw that Barnes and Noble was a trending topic. This got me excited. What could people possibly be talking about Barnes and Noble on Twitter for? I clicked around and saw that everyone was a flutter over Barnes and Noble’s release of the Nook. The Nook was their new e-reading device. I clicked around on the Web site for a while and found that certain stores would have a Nook on hand for people to try out.

I had to do it.  It wasn’t the Kindle, but after reading about it for a half hour, the Nook seemed almost identical to it.

Photo credit: Shuyi Meng

Unfortunately I had to wait about a month for the Barnes and Noble near me to get one in.  But when it arrived, so did I. I walked into the store and went straight to the customer service booth where there was one on display. It was a lot smaller than I imagined and extremely light.

I studied it in my hand for a minute before I tried to turn it on. I looked for a button that might say “on.” Where the hell was it? A female Barnes and Noble employee walked up and embarrassed, I asked her how to turn it on. She pointed to a discreet silver button at the top of the Nook and it instantly began to light up. I thanked her and began to press buttons, not knowing exactly what I was doing.

The screen was divided in two. The larger portion was where the text displayed and it was not a touch screen. I kept getting confused and tried to touch my way through it a few times. The smaller screen on the bottom is a colored touch screen. This is where you can type things in and see book covers in color. There are two buttons with arrows on each side of the screen. I soon found that I could scroll through a page on the bigger screen with the arrows and that the bottom touch screen could change the page completely.

I had figured out the navigation enough to pull up the available novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I was shocked. The pages actually looked like the pages of a physical book. There was no bright white glow like a computer screen and there was no glare from the ceiling lights. Electronic paper technology actually looked like ink on paper.  As I read the pages, the glow from the bottom small screen faded and I was absorbed in the book. I clicked the arrow button to turn the page and was immediately taken out of the dream world.  The next page appeared on top of the current page and the two jumbled together.  About a second later the old page faded and the new page fully appeared. It took a few seconds and I found myself impatient to finish reading.  When I read at home I prepare to turn the page seconds before and am able to flip quick enough to remain entranced in the book. The Nook was not fast enough.

I tried to get back into the book and was almost there when I was interrupted by a male employee. He had come over to give me a demonstration. This had broken the intimacy between the book and I, yet again. I don’t like to have people hovering around when I read. I imagined that this kind of thing would happen all the time as people tried to get used to e-readers. People on the street would walk up to me and get in my personal space. They’d ask what the device was and then what I was reading on it. “Goddamn book,” I would respond in my best Holden Caulfield voice.

“Hi, would you like a tutorial?”

I responded that I would and he started his salesman spiel. The first thing he showed me was how to buy books.  ]You touched the Store button on the small bottom screen. You could then type in the names of books and newspapers. It was exciting to think that I could get newspapers from other states. I don’t read newspapers often, but if I could get them delivered to me without having to hunt them down I’m sure I’d read them more.

He pulled up the touch screen keyboard and began to type in “Stephen King.” I smiled to myself as I watched the salesman falter. He kept hitting multiple letters and had to constantly delete them. I later tried to type on it myself and had the same problem. The letters are small and the touch screen is sensitive. Once he finally had Stephen King typed out he hit “enter” and all of the books by Stephen King popped up on the larger screen. You can then use the arrow keys on the sides to click down until you find the book you want.  He clicked on Stephen King’s Under the Dome and then “buy” and within a few seconds the book was delivered to the Nook.

(Photo credit: Brett Ekblad)

“What methods of payment does the Nook take? Can you pay with your checking account?”  I asked.

“No, you can’t. You can pay with a credit card and if you don’t want to do that you can always come into the store and by a gift card to be used.”

“The gift card works. I read too much to be charging books to my credit card. My bill would be enormous with interest.”

He continued to tell me that they had a deal worked out with Google Books for older titles. They transfer books like Jane Austin’s to e-book format and you could own them on your Nook for free. That would have come in handy for all the English classes I took earlier in college. The Nook would have saved me probably $100 easy. Of course, I would have to pay $250 for the Nook.

I asked if academic books, like math books, were available on the Nook and he responded that a few were. It was up to the publishers of the book to decide if they want to put their textbook in e-book format. So, some textbooks you can get and others you can’t. It was unfortunate because e-books are much cheaper than physical books.  Most books on the Nook only cost $9.99.

After we discussed book prices, the salesman showed me how to scan through the text using the arrow keys on the sides of the Nook. You could highlight text, bookmark pages, and look up words in the dictionary. The Nook even allowed you to type in words or phrases and it would find every page that those particular words appeared. I was still thinking about the feature when the salesman moved on to the text size. If you wanted you could make the text smaller or larger, but I prefer the normal text size.

When he was done he left me alone with the machine and I began to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo again. Nook remembered the page I was on when I last read and it returned to it. I started to settle into the e-book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was cheating on the physical book. Here I was surrounded by thousands of books and I had my back turned to them while I read on an e-reader. I soon lost interest and left the store.

After I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about something that the salesman kept repeating. “You can still come to the physical store,” he said over and over. I could go to buy gift cards for the Nook, to buy storage cards for it, and to read books on the e-reader for free (which you will soon be able to do, but only if you’re at a Barnes and Noble store). He would throw it into the conversation as if he was worried for his job.

Some people fear that e-readers will run bookstores out of business, and this is even more terrifying than reading books on a piece of plastic. Some libraries are already transcribing books online and getting rid of the physical books. Hemingway, Anais Nin, Edgar Allan Poe, authors whose work was written by hand on paper will be read not on paper, but on a machine. Our connection to these writers through paper will be lost, and I can’t help but wonder if generations from now people will lose touch with the writing itself because they don’t know what it’s like to read a physical book with paper pages. Maybe in history e-books they will be taught that people used to read on sheets of paper, just like we learned about literature written on rocks.

I shake the thought and try to put my bias away. E-readers definitely have an advantage over physical books when it comes to class work. Being able to highlight, search the document, look things up on Wikipedia, and look up words on a dictionary brings the power of the internet to the book and makes class work faster and easier. E-books also have the advantage of being much cheaper than physical books, which saves students money. The Nook is $250 now, but as the technology becomes better and more common the price will most likely drop, like the price of computers has.

It seems that e-readers have more advantages than simple books and may make books completely disappear one day. But for the people who look at reading as an experience, you can’t beat the crisp, warm pages of a new book and the feel of the hand turning a page. So, like the PC user I am, I will stick to what I’m most comfortable with and I’ll take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. And so the book will live on to see another day in my library.

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