Some thoughts on ebooks

A few stories.**

1.I read a story once about an Islamic scholar, who had just finished at university. He was on his way home through the desert when he was set upon by a group of bandits. He cried out, “Take everything but leave my notes!” The chief bandit rifled through the university notes, and then tossed them at his feet contemptuously. “I thought you went to university to learn, not to learn to take notes.”

The scholar, thoroughly robbed, set home thinking about the bandit’s words. When he got home he burnt his notes, and from then on he never took notes again, but listened carefully instead.

To learn means to make of something – a thought, an action – a part of you. (Okay I know there are a lot of issues with this story/fable, but there are a lot of issues with the tortoise and the hare, and the fox and the grapes too. Take what’s useful and leave the rest.)

2. When I was about 15, I discovered Project Gutenberg online. Up until then, I had never thought I would be able to read L.M. Montgomery’s (my favourite author at the time) entire back catalogue of books. Not only was I able, thanks to Project Gutenberg, to read everything ever written by L.M Montgomery, I was able to discover a whole host of classic old children’s novels I’d never been able to find in Booker or Best Eastern.

I had a similar thrill of discovery a few years before that, in a tiny crammed bookstore in Miri, where I found a couple of the Anne of Green Gables sequels. But to have the entirety of Montgomery’s works! At my fingertips! Free (well, other than the broadband charges I suppose)! And available to me even when I moved abroad a year later, homesick and hungry for something familiar and comforting.

Thanks to Gutenberg, I had access to out-of-print books that didn’t sell well in Brunei and so weren’t brought in. I think at one point I seriously considered becoming a transcriber for Gutenberg to pay it forward. It still sounds like a great thing to do. I can type pretty fast.

(I would like to point out that over the years I eventually and gradually bought hard copies of these books, but it remains a warm spot in my heart that they are still online for other teenage girls to find and read for free.)

3. From 2001-2014, I lived in 8 different cities. I traveled alone a lot, and no matter how much you grow to love a place, in the beginning, when things are unfamiliar and strange, it is comforting to draw the curtains of a known, imagined world over you. Re-reading loved books is one of the ways I help myself feel more grounded in new places, spaces, times. My e-reader currently holds over 1000 books – I have shipped a lot of books when moving, but I am always grateful that I can keep so many more of them with me, a touchstone, a sanctuary.

4. I am grateful my students are able to get online copies of books that we read for class. I am grateful that the digitization of knowledge and of stories mean that they can be shared across the world, and are not at the mercy of censorship boards* and postal delays.

5. Because of ebooks, I can start series late at night, without having to worry about waiting till the bookstore opens the next day to get the next in the series.

6. Even when I’ve forgotten to bring along a hard copy, I always have my phone with me. I have something to read when I’m in queues at the bank, waiting for late friends, eating alone in foreign countries.

Yes, there is something special about hard copies of books, but I think it’s important to remember that loving the materiality of books – the smell, the texture, the look of them on a bookshelf – is not the same as loving the act of reading.

I think it’s also important to remember that the ownership of books, of physical books, and the cultural capital we assign to this ownership (and usually display) has roots in privilege and elitism, and that “well-educated” and “learned” were the privilege of the wealthy, and too many times in human history, it was those wealthy who sought to keep their power by restricting access to knowledge. Often through restricting access to books and repositories of knowledge, either intentionally (see: literacy and education) or unintentionally (see: the expense of producing books, and their comparative rarity pre-Industrial Revolution).

We romanticize beautiful home libraries, and spaces (“nooks”) for books and for reading, but its the space in the imagination, the pushing back of our mental horizons, that is truly important. Yes, the Beast’s library was glorious, but don’t tell me Belle wouldn’t have rather had an e-reader so she wouldn’t have had to deal with a smarmy Gaston while walking through the town OR have been dependent on the generosity of a kidnapper, basically.

If you believe in reading, if you believe in its importance and value, then you must believe in everything that democratizes the act of reading, that allows everybody access. Whether that’s a well-stocked public library, a cool dim reading corner, a quiet bookstore, pulp fiction (“penny dreadfuls”) or an ebook.

*Caveat: I realise that access to the Internet and digitized books is also a form of privilege.

I also worry about e-book publishers shutting down and suddenly all your books disappearing from your e-reader, or the digitization of books making it so so easy to alter something, compromising the integrity of the original text, but one dystopia at a time, please.

** This is all really in response to stuff I see in my social media about ebooks not being “real” books, or the romanticization of the smell of old books etc. Believe me, I get it. My earliest reads were all hard copies. Part of the joy of reading SVH and R.L. Stine etc was seeing the books accumulate on the shelves, seeing what took up so much of my imagination tangible and increasing in bulk. Cover art, in particular, is something I miss from e-books – my e-reader is black and white. And hard copies can sometimes do work that e-books can’t – lending and borrowing, places where there isn’t internet etc. My point is they’re not in competition. They’re working towards the same goal, the democratization of knowledge and access to knowledge – a goal we should all support.

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