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A Poignant Response To Books Vs E-books, Courtesy of Will Schwalbe

10212-list.jpg_full_600On Sunday I was on a panel called The Power of Books at the Miami Book Fair. My co-panelists were Will Schwalbe, author of The End Of Your Life Book Cluband Dani Shapiro, who has written too many wonderful things to list. Her most recent is Still Writing: The Pleasures And Perils of a Creative Life

Will Schwalbe might be the most instantly likable treasure of a person that I have ever met. Just having him in the room made me happy.

We each did a reading from our respective books, then took questions. Will’s reading of his book almost brought me to tears, which happened on just about every page of his book as well.

One person asked which format we each read the most on, and which we preferred. So this was the “How do you feel about print books vs electronic books?” question.

I’ll include badly paraphrased versions of each of our responses below.

Me: My response was that what I need from books is the stories and the ideas that they contain. That isn’t format-specific, but the words are the words for me, not the wrapper. Books are tools. The format I prefer currently depends on the work I’m doing. If I’m reading for fun, Kindle is fine (unless I’m reading something with lovely illustrations and I want to see color), and it’s definitely more convenient while traveling. I read several hundred pages a day, and packing those books on long trips gets cumbersome.

But if I’m trying to use a cookbook, or doing research, I don’t want to be dicking around with an electronic screen, scrolling back and forth and trying to pretend it’s as easy to make annotations on the awful Kindle keyboard as it is with a pencil.

Don’t get me wrong. I love print books to death. I’d be very sad if they went away, but there’s NO reason to think that’s happening anytime soon, or possibly even in my lifetime. I just don’t know, so I’m not going to get all hysterical today while I’m sitting in a building with over 500,000 books in it.

Dani: Dani said that when she reads, she really engages with a book and has a dialogue with it. “I mark my books up like crazy. I find it very hard to converse with, or engage with, a book in electronic format.” Dani, if I got that wrong, let me know.

Will: (cue portentous music and swelling strings). If you haven’t read The End Of Your Life Book Club, it’s about the book Will and his mother read while she was dying of pancreatic cancer. It’s sad, of course, but it’s also a gorgeous tribute to the life of a woman who was so precious to her son.

He gave a lengthy answer, but this is the part I’ll never forget, paraphrased inadequately, I’m sure.

“I was there with mom for the last two days, and then when she died, I looked around the room. I looked at the book shelf and slowly panned across, reading the titles on the spines. It was a lovely, heartbreaking, but uplifting and physical example of who she had been and the books she and I had loved together. And the love we had shared.” Then he smiled and said, “It gave me a comfort that I don’t know that I can ever get from a screen.”

Now I’m crying so I’m going to stop. But Will and Dani, thank you both so much for being so kind to me, and Will, thank you for answering that question better than anyone ever will.

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  • Melody Tolson December 6, 2013, 12:45 pm

    My husband has taken easily to electronic-format reading but it just isn’t my cup of tea. I’ve borrowed his kindle to read some only-on-ebook short stories and I was happy to have access to them and liked the look of the page more than I expected. Still, a traditional book is the love of my life. I can certainly see the travel advantage and, as I work for textbook publishers who now routinely offers an ebook version as well as print, I imagine students are happy to not always be dragging 80 pounds of books from class to class. But I love the physical presence of books in my home. Rooms without at least one wall of bookcases always look a little naked to me.

    And scanning someone’s bookcase can reveal things about them and start conversations that an ebook probably won’t. My roomate dated a man who worked in a bookstore and on one of our first dates, while she was putting on her finishing touches, I found him studying my bookcases. I asked if I “passed” and at first he denied that he was making any judgements but then smiled and sheepishly admitted that I had indeed passed.