Armed with a shiny new gift card, I set about fulfilling my reading wish list this week. There was only one problem. For each title, I hovered over the “add to cart” button, wavering unsteadily between two options: print or ebook. In the past, the print vs. digital decision has always been an obvious one. I wanted to feel the weight of a book in my hands, inhale that new (or used) book smell, and wander my way through the geography of its pages. My Kindle library, on the other hand, is made up largely of books I couldn’t find at the university library two hours before a class. The sensory aspect of print always won out; ebooks were second-string.
Lately, though, the gravitational pull of digital has dragged me right into the center of the debate. It used to seem as if digital libraries were isolated ones. When all of our recent reads drift into the abyss of the cloud, we lose that particular intimacy of hovering over a friend’s bookshelves, running a finger over the titles, and uncovering the stories behind the stories.
That’s the thing about personal libraries. They bear witness to the places we’ve been and the people we’ve loved. The collective provenance of our books is like a time capsule. Where were you when you read this one, and who were you with, and where did you get it, and who had it before you? The used books and those with personal inscriptions are of particular interest. They remind us of our connections to friends and strangers.
And anyways, have you ever had an author sign your ebook?
But despite the compelling arguments for print (and I can think of many more), I am beginning to glimpse the possibilities for reading in community with ebooks. You can read together long-distance and share impressions in real time with 24-Hour Bookclub. You can share favorite passages with Readmill, and you can even browse your friends’ digital libraries with Goodreads. I’m just touching the surface of these and so many other possibilities, but I’m excited about reading as a communal sport. I hope it lands comfortably somewhere on the spectrum between very quiet alone-time reading and social media overwhelm.
In the end, I bought one ebook and one print. I’m devouring the former while I wait a whole forty-eight hours for the latter to arrive, in all of its weighty, book-scented glory. As for the rest of my list, I’ll let you know how it goes.