A book is a book is a…well, no, not really

I got into a discussion today over at FriendFeed that began with a statement I just didn’t get…and evolved into a situation where, if I’m not mistaken, people (or at least one person) read something that I didn’t write. I thought I’d bring it over to a post for explication, rather than cluttering up a thread.

I’ll skip most of the stuff having to do with fetishizing “reading/books”–and while I can see that some people might make fetishes of particular print books or print books in general, fetishizing reading strikes me as incredibly improbable except for an early reader–“Look, Ma, I’m only 3 and I’m reading Shakespeare!”

Anyway, here’s part of the place where I think I was badly misread, leaving out the personal identification:

I didn’t do the “reading/books” bit, but I will damn well assert that reading is the principal way of overcoming ignorance. (And are you saying ebooks aren’t books? I don’t say that.)

A bit later on, Steve Lawson talked about a class on the history and future of books that he’d taught and a final exam question he did not actually give:

Here is a final exam question I wish I had given, but did not. I think the last sentence is pertinent: “For a college book-collecting contest, a student wanted to submit a collection of electronic books. Would you allow such a submission? In supporting your answer consider some of the following: What are good criteria for judging a collection of tangible, physical books? Is it possible to evaluate a collection of electronic books the same way, or would you propose different criteria? Is it possible or useful to compare collections of paper books and electronic books? How do concepts of “individuality,” “ownership,” and “scarcity” affect your answer? Is book collecting of any kind merely a bourgeois exercise in Pokemon-esque conspicuous consumption, narcissism, elitism, and crypto-fetishism by an anal-retentive phallocracy of bibliobores?”

I responded:

Wow. Interesting final question. I guess I’d distinguish between a book collection as an act of curation (real curation) and a book collection as a neato set of objects. In the former case, it strikes me that a collection of ebooks would be entirely appropriate. As to the last sentence, I’m almost inclined to say “Probably. Is something wrong with that?” but I’m afraid my tongue would puncture my cheek.

(Lawson says an essay version of that answer might have scored well.) A little later, I got a remark that appeared to me (perhaps wrongly) to suggest that I was equating ebooks and print books–saying “there’s no difference.”

And that’s just plain wrong, at least for me. (I’d say it’s just plain wrong, period–but read on for a key distinction.)

The simple truths

I do believe this statement and regard it as a general truth (one that everybody should believe, much like evolution and human-induced climate change):

An ebook is a book.

Which, to me, means that it’s perfectly reasonable to have (curated) collections of ebooks–collections that have clear merit and reasonable organizational axes. Authors, topics, publishers, prose styles, lots of other possibilities. For PDF ebooks, even typography and layout (and I just don’t know enough about EPUB and .MOBI, but my sense is that these “true” ebook formats don’t allow for much author/designer/publisher control over typography and layout; I could be wrong). So:

You can as readily curate collections of ebooks as you can collections of any other kind of book.

But that does not imply…

The next level:

There’s no difference between ebooks and print books.

I do not believe that, and I think it’s a silly statement. There are differences between kinds of print books–a hardcover or trade paperback is a very different kind of book from a mass-market paperback, for example. And print books are different creatures than ebooks. But they’re both books.

I think that’s a reasonably universal truth. Here’s a more local one:

Only the text matters: Everything else is irrelevant.

That’s the true “A book is a book is a book…” assumption, and I think it may be true for some people. It’s not true for me. If it’s true for you, I won’t argue the case: If the typeface, layout, and physical characteristics of a book are simply irrelevant to you, that’s your choice.

Here’s an example. I’ve read most of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and loved them. Other than new ones and some of the offshoots, I have eight more left to read, eight from the middle of the series.

I first encountered Discworld from the library of a cruise ship (and yes, those are libraries), in the best possible form (for me): A handsomely-produced hardback. I think I managed to read the first four in that manner.

Later, I read close to a dozen of the novels in what may be the worst form: Second-hand mass-market paperbacks, with their yellowing paper and small type.

Since then, I’ve read some of the earlier and all of the most recent either on cruise ships (in hardback) or from my public library (in hardback).

The eight that remain? (Jingo through Monstrous Regiment, if you’re curious.) They’re new mass-market paperbacks that I picked up to read while traveling, but I haven’t been doing as much traveling. Now, since I don’t foresee too many more emerging, I’ll admit that I’m saving these…but Jingo is 12 years old already, which for the crap paper used in mass-market paperbacks suggests I really should get to them some day soon…

Anyway: These are different kinds of books. Yes, the text is the same in the hardcover and mass-market paperbacks, but the hardcovers are considerably more pleasant to read. I suspect a really good ebook edition on a really good ereader would be somewhere in between–not as pleasant as the hardcover (but I could be wrong) but more pleasant than the cramped-margin, small-type, yellowing-paper mass-market paperback.

Similarities and distinctions

In any case: What I wrote was that ebooks are books. What I neither wrote nor said was that ebooks are the same as print books.

They’re not.

For some people for some texts under some conditions, they may be superior. (As I’ve said frequently: If I was still traveling 6 times a year, I’d either have an ereader or a netbook or, sigh, maybe even a tablet.) For some people for some texts under some conditions, they’re probably inferior.

But then, a mass-market paperback is pretty clearly an inferior reading experience to a trade paperback or hardcover, all else being equal.

All else rarely is equal.

None of this is rocket science; indeed, none of this is really new.

And, who knows, maybe nobody really misunderstood me. That happens too.

2 Responses to “A book is a book is a…well, no, not really”

  1. Angel says:

    Maybe in my case, I “fetishize” books because I like the idea that I own the books. I can do whatever I want with them without having to worry about which publisher gets pissy if I lend an electronic copy out or such. The hardback, paperback so on, once I paid for it, it’s mine. And if I want to sell it, pass it on, burn it (heaven forbid), I can do it in peace.

    Then we have the questions of access, format, etc. At work at least, a constant gripe from students when we offer an e-book is “do you have it as a real book.” Reasons? They do not have their own device. They live in the “boonies” (and that means for a good number of them, dial-up connection, so forget about using an EBSCO database let alone an e-book). They do not want to be bothered. So on. There is something to be said for print books. And not to mention what will happen when formats change (floppy disks anyone?).

    Now, if e-books are someone else’s thing, good for them. As you point out, books are books. But as you also point out, book vs. e-book are not the same thing. For me, if they are reading, that’s cool.

    Anyhow, I am staying away from FF, and I am going back to my reading. As always, best, and keep on blogging.

  2. waltcrawford says:

    Angel: You’re not fetishizing books. You prefer print books for perfectly sound reasons. (First sale is one good reason to prefer print books, especially for libraries!) Your second paragraph is also a telling one…

    As for FF, the Library Society of the World on FF is my primary connection to librarianship these days, and I find it a wonderfully informative and engaging community. That there are some in the community that get on my nerves…well, that works both ways, and I think that’s true of any vital, active community.