Since January of 2010, when library patrons started asking me how they could read a library book on the new Kindle they got for Christmas, I've had "read an entire e-book" on my list of goals.
Of course, I have done my professional duty. I learned how to use a Kindle, and then the Kindle app, and then the Overdrive system, and then the Overdrive app. I downloaded and listened to quite a few e-audiobooks, especially when I was training for my marathon. I helped patrons with their e-book issues. I never considered buying a Kindle or a Nook, but I did download e-books onto my phone.
I just never actually read any of them.
I tried books from multiple genres—literary fiction, science fiction, YA, nonfiction. But I couldn't ever seem to stay connected to the story. I got 10% finished with Mudbound by Hillary Jordan before my check out expired. Twenty percent through Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children; 18% through Behind the Beautiful Forevers and a dismal 3% through Scarlet. Picking up my phone to read didn't feel like reading, but like looking at something on my phone. Bookless, it was simply a story.
I am, I have discovered, a print purist.
The pleasure in reading, for me, isn't only about the story. It is also about the book itself. The book in my hand, and turning the pages. The physical presence of that object in my life at that moment (and its absence, as when I often wander through the house, trying to remember where I left my book). It is flipping back through pages to straighten out in my head a plot point or a character's history or how a particular idea lines up with something that happens later on. If I am reading a library book, the pleasure is in sticky notes or other little bits of paper to mark spots I want to come back to before I return it, and it is also in the actual returning. If I am reading my own book, it becomes a layered thing: the story itself, my notes on and underlining of the story, the other things I might write in the book (shopping lists; an appointment date and time; phone numbers; to-do items; ideas for an essay, scrapbook layout, quilt, blog post, poem), folded down corners and maybe a little spill here and there. Also, because the memories of reading are part of reading, the place I was when I read the book.
Also reading in the bathtub, which feels dicey with my cell phone.
When people extol the virtues of e-books—the portability, the availability, the general coolness—I have two simultaneous internal reaction. One is a sort of mental shrug: it just isn't my thing. (Embedded in the shrug is the thought of how printed books don't require any more technology than turning the page with your finger.) One is a little bit envious: if you can happily read e-books, you do get the portability and the availability. (Except in the bathtub.) You never have to wish you hadn't forgotten your book in the car when you're waiting in a long line at Starbucks. Part of me, in other words, would like to be able to read e-books while still maintaining all of the other pleasures of reading print books.
Which is just not really possible for me.
Recently, I've discovered Maggie Stiefvater's series The Raven Boys. I read the first one only reluctantly and to help out with a library project. And after I'd had it checked out for three weeks and had to renew it. I began reading the second one, The Dream Thieves, on the afternoon of the very same day I finished the first one, because I could. not. wait. to go back into that world. And then I realized: the hold list for Blue Lily, Lily Blue is really, really long. And one of the rules at my library is that staff members can only get a book on their hold shelf if no other library patrons are waiting for it. Which means I'd have to wait months before I read it.
So I put my name on the hold list anyway. I took a deep breath, logged on to the Overdrive app, and put my name on the hold list for the e-book. Then, just a few weeks later, I got the notification for the e-book copy in my email, when I was still miles down the list for the regular copy.
And then, dear readers, I did something I have never, ever managed: I read an entire e-book. Start to finish. On my phone.
I'm still analyzing how I feel about this experience. On one hand, I got to read the book I've been wanting to read. Maybe it was the anticipation itself that made me keep reading—I wanted to find out the next bit of the story no matter what. Or maybe I've just gotten so used to using my phone for almost everything else that reading on it doesn't feel as foreign. Maybe it was temporary January insanity. Whatever the reason, I got to read that book much sooner than I would have otherwise. I read it in the car while Kendell was driving. I read it at Nathan's basketball games (during the time he wasn't playing). I even, yes, read it in line at Starbucks.
I got to read it!
But on the other hand, I feel much less connected to the book. Like I read it through a dirty window, which is an image that might only make sense in my head. I feel like I got the gist of the story, but not its heart. It didn't feel spooky to me when it was trying to feel spooky, nor entirely sad at the should-be-sad bits. I can't tell if I feel that way because of the story itself or because of how I read the story.
I keep thinking about Anne Fadiman's essay, "Never Do That to a Book," which separates readers into two different types, the courtly or the carnal. Courtly readers are very careful with their books, because for them, the book itself is the important thing. Carnal readers see the book as only the delivery system for the story—the story, not the delivery system, being the important thing. Since reading that essay (more than a decade ago!) I've thought of myself as a carnal reader, because I don't have a problem messing up my books. (In fact, I wish all library books could have a sign-in page at the front and then space for each reader to write his/her reaction in the back. I've joked about this at librarian meetings but no one else seems to think this would be a good idea.) But maybe I am more courtly than I imagined. Reading (finally, actually finishing) an e-book has taught me (in a way I didn't understand before) that I do value books themselves, as well as stories.
Which of course begs the question: now that I know I can read an e-book, will I do it again? It depends. A book that was long and meaty and full of ideas and quotes I'd like to remember and pages I'd like to dog-ear: probably not. A book I was just reading for entertainment and story? Sure, if I could get the e-book faster. But I think I will continue on mostly reading what I've thought of, the entire time of writing this, as real books.
At heart, I will always be a print purist.