Newsweek Questions the Future of Reading: "Big Brains on e-Books"

The last few weeks have been good to bookworms, with one rich and though-provoking article following the last. Last week I featured HuffPost's discussion of how to keep book reviews relevant. Today, Shelf Awareness excerpted a quote from Newsweek's article on the future of reading, Big Brains on e-Books.

The article kicks of with the oft-repeated and still-unintelligible-to-me claim that Amazon's e-books now outsell paperbacks before polling some well-known bookworms on their thoughts on e-books and e-readers and the future of reading:
"Not to diminish the value of a paperback, when it comes to somebody investing in a hardcover, it’s something you want to keep. Everything from a cloth-case wrap to a leatherette to a foil-stamped cover, heavier paper, better binding, innovative cover design. You have to give readers a choice, between a richer experience with paper and board and cloth, and a more sterile experience through an electronic reader. We just try to make every aspect of the physical book as good as it can possibly be, because that’s our greatest hedge against the dominance of e-books." -Dave Eggers
I've written before about the power of a paper book (whether paperback or hardcover) over an e-book, particularly in the arena of smell. Eggers, like so many other bookworms, is acutely aware of the power of a physical book to captivate and spellbind readers, and despite the convenience of e-books, we have yet to see them figure out that part of the industry.
"How you read is not as important as: will you read? And will you read something that’s a book—the sustained train of thought of one person speaking to another? Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow a full train of thought. This is part of a general cultural problem." - James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress (this passage also quoted in today's Shelf Awareness)
This is why Billington is the Librarian of Congress and I am not: he's managed to put into words my own problem with e-books and the concept of enhanced e-books (which Ron Charles also touched on in one of his Totally Hip Book Reviews). E-books, and particularly enhanced e-books, are designed to give readers more options, more content, more information. But when reading a book, do we really need all that? Do we even want it? The book itself should shine through on its own, without the aid of author interviews, blurbs from famous people, or embedded video.

Personally, I avoid reading editorial introductions to any book I have not yet read. I tend to skim the back-cover summary to see what a book is about, but avoid learning much more about it so I can form my own opinion. The book is a standalone item, and if it fails to succeed without the noise that surrounds it... well, then it's failed to succeed.

So. I have an e-reader, though I have yet to complete an entire book on it. I am intrigued by the convenience of an e-reader, and the options for enhanced e-books. There are some titles - like War in the Pacific - which cry out for an enhanced e-book, but I believe this is an area in which authors, publishers and editors should tread lightly. It's just one quick slip to fall into the imagined world of Ron Charles, after all. What about you? Thoughts? Do you have an e-reader? Do you read enhanced e-books?


  1. I haven't yet read an enhanced e-book and I don't think I'll go out of my way for them, but I think they're a good idea. Similar to adding bonus features onto a DVD. I'm not sure how the enhanced books are generally read, but I like having a dictionary and note taking options in my ebook.

  2. I have an e-book. I like it for traveling - especially if I am fairly certain I will be reading more than one book.
    I do like having the dictionary on the e-book - makes looking up a word very easy. I have never used the note taking option. Reading a thick book on an e-book is easier than the physical book and I have read several books on it.
    That said - I still prefer reading from a physical book - the feel, the look, the smell.
    And, I can't pass the book on to a friend or family member (unless they have the same e-book as I do - but even then, not all books are loanable.)

  3. Red - I guess for me, it depends on how the enhanced content is worked in. If it is easy to read around it, great, and if the content is still capable of standing without the side content, even better. My concern is the slippery-slope nature of the beast (how's that for mixing metaphors?). It seems too easy to get lost in the side content and end up missing the book itself.

    Ann - The convenience is DEFINITELY a plus. And the dictionary bit, I agree with that. I often pull out my dictionary (or my to check a word.

  4. I read ebooks on my iphone. I find it convenient because it means i can go everywhere with a book - i dont even have to take a handbag with me if I don't want to (my 56 handbags just had a collective heart attack) and I can still take a book with me. Great for waiting in queues or in a waiting room at the doctors. If someone is late I can pull out a book.

    But I only read free ebooks, mainly on my stanza app, so it all classic sort or stuff. I also try to keep it easy - Sherlock Holmes books, Jules Verne, the Anne of Green Gables series. Those sorts of things.

    I am so glad for the convenience of having it on my phone, but I wouldn't bother buying an ereader. Too big - if I am going to carry something around, I would rather it was actually a book.

    Convenience is great but there is nothing like a book

  5. I have an e-reader (My husband is a gadget freak and bought it for my despite my protestations). I travel a lot, and I do like the convenience of having several books in a small, compact place. But I will never prefer them to actual, physical books. The enhancements don't interest me at all.

  6. Becky - It is definitely convenient. I have some books on my iPod just for emergencies - I hate getting caught out without something to read. I read The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland on it recently. Tried to read Dracula, but couldn't get into it (although I did enjoy the paper version).

    Becca - The enhancements are actually a turn-off to me. But I am almost finished my first full e-book on my Sony Reader, and I could get used it carrying around one little thing instead of 3-4 heavy ones.

  7. I don't see it as a question of "either/or". I have a Kindle and love it - especially loved reading Giants of the Earth and Skippy Dies on it, because those suckers are BIG and heavy in book form, easy to read on a Kindle (I once split my lip when I fell asleep reading Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles - 881 pages, 2.5 pounds).

    I own hundreds - thousands? - of books, and buy more all the time. Sometimes, if I particularly like a book on my Kindle, I buy the hard copy. It's easier to go back and reread sections in a book, I like the covers, I like the feel in my hands. I do believe a reader interacts a little differently with "real" book (although I don't get the "smell" thing - I don't think any of my books smell and, if they did, I'd probably take a Clorox Wipe to them).

    I'll never be without an e-reader again;also will never be without books. It's what's inside that matters most to me, no matter what the format is. Just my humble opinion.


Thanks for stopping by!