Don’t Judge a Book…

ebook_640 I was on Twitter this weekend, and I noticed that Roger Ebert was posting an awful lot of anti-ebook messages.  Well, they weren’t exactly anti-ebook, but they were very passive aggressive in how they pointed out all the positive aspects of literature and books that can’t be conveyed via ebooks.

The funny thing is, everything he said was true.  From a certain point of view.

He’s right that children will probably never be handed a used ebook to discover literature.  He’s right that old ebooks can’t be remaindered and keep a poignant smell that just makes collectors and aficionados drool.  He’s right that readers can’t ruffle the pages as they read, passing the time with a universally subconscious tick.

But what he’s wrong about is that ebooks somehow limit those things that are unique to physical books, that ebooks are the harbinger of a book-less future.

My take on it is this:  Ebooks do not mean the death of real books in any way more than the invention of audiobooks did.  My main grip is that for some reason, people are more caught up in the format the books come in rather than what comes in the book.

Despite being told our entire lives to never judge a book by its cover, many ebook haters do just that.  By doing like Ebert did and pointing out things that ebooks—by their very nature—cannot do, such critics seem to be looking for deficiencies in the format instead of embracing what actual  strengths ebooks have.

Not that everyone who doesn’t like ebooks does this.  Some people have tried ebooks and just prefer to hold a volume and actually turn pages.  Goodness knows that I’d be a shadow of my current self if I had never been bitten by the page-turning bug when I was a kid.

Conversely, my preferring to nuzzle up with my Kindle in bed before I sleep does not mean that I am a traitor to booklovers everywhere.

Somewhere along the road to ebook proliferation, a line was drawn in the sand between technology lovers and booklovers.  And for some reason beyond my understanding, the two categories have become mutually exclusive.

Missing the Point

My problem is this: why is there such a disconnect between readers?  When did the medium through which a book is read become so much more important than what is actually contained within it?  Why are we debating about what format of Shakespeare we are reading instead of what play?

There are three main arguments that I hear regarding ebooks:

  • Ebooks will destroy the used book market, making it a lot harder for people to acquire and share literature.

To which I answer: nuh uh.

I love used books, but in the case of price, I’ve found that the ebook habit I have recently developed has been substantially cheaper than if I would have bought those same books from the used bookstores I tend to frequent.  When I was buying books for my M.A. comps, I had to go online to get sub-$5 paperbacks because there was no real discount from the book being secondhand.  I’ve read a lot this year in the $2-4 range on my Kindle.

And if the ebook editions are still pricier than your used ones, then I suggest hitting up the local public library, which is the cheapest of all options.  Nothin’ beats free.

  • book comic You can’t share ebooks with friends and loved ones. Sharing is my main qualm with ebooks.  Or more accurately, the inability to adequately share books.  I’ve recently wanted to get my dad hooked on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, but only own them on my Kindle.  Since he doesn’t have an iPhone or a Kindle I can register to my account (and he doesn’t want to sit in front of his laptop and read it on Kindle for PC), I really can’t share the book with him without just giving him my Kindle which would cause a great deal of separation anxiety on my part.

The solution to this is simple: find a cheap used book on Amazon or AbeBooks and buy them for my dad.  But that’s an unnecessary expense (not to mention trouble) to share something I’ve already purchased.  However, because that is one of my only courses of action to share ebooks I love with the people I love, I’ll probably eventually do it.  Which in turn supports the used book market.

  • Kids will never discover the love of books because they won’t exist anymore. Probably my biggest pet peeve in the whole “real” books vs. ebooks debate is that people say kids won’t read as often because people won’t have books to share with them.

To me, that’s ridiculous.  I’m an avid reader, mainly ebooks this year, and when my nephew was born this past month, I went to the bookstore and bought him his very first Winnie The Pooh storybooks.

As he gets older, I’ll buy him more books to read.  I’ll give my little cousins more Stephen King short story collections and novels.  I’ll keep books on my shelf for students to take and enjoy.  I won’t give them e-copies, however, for much the same reason that I don’t like to give gift cards as presents.

When I was in the fourth grade, I will never forget Mrs. Crews buying me a Goosebumps book when she was at a bookstore because she knew I loved the series.  Could she have done that with an ebook?  Absolutely not.

Ebooks are a personal convenience.  I don’t read ebooks because I want to share them with my kids.  I read ebooks because I like the convenience.  I still go out and buy copies of my favorite books, which means that when I get around to sharing them, those I share with will only get the cream of the crop.

I’ve given books to kids, to cousins.  I’ve had students, colleagues, and family members give books to me, even this past year.  That love of sharing literature is the main reason that print books will never go away, even if ebooks get a substantial piece of the marketshare.

It’s What’s On The Inside That Counts

In none of these arguments I hear consistently arguing against ebooks do I ever hear about the one thing that matters: the content.  I don’t care what a book looks like, generally, if I like what’s inside it.  I’ve read books with no covers, with creased spines and wrinkled pages.  I’ve read pristine hardbacks and curled up with my Kindle more nights than I haven’t.  And with each book read, the end result was the same: the writing was what mattered.  I analyzed the story being told rather than the medium in which I read it.

Old Man’s War is the same in trade paperback as it is in the mass-market paperback as it is in hardcover.  And so is Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, David Copperfield, Macbeth, and any other book that’s ever been written.

ebook-vs-paperboo And that’s the point.  Books are written to be read, to be loved, to be analyzed and thought about.  The medium through which we do these things is only a minor part, which is why I think the ebooks vs. physical books argument to be quite silly.

Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.  We stopped caring about the reason we loved reading to begin with and started caring about how we looked while we loved reading.

It’s time for that to stop.  If you want to read on a Kindle or a nook or an iPhone, do it.  If you want to hold a hardcover open and turn the pages, go right ahead.  But by all means, as you do so, remember that it’s not what you physically hold in your hand that’s important.  That’s the ideas.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. One of the greatest pressures in our society is the pressure to get noticed. Today we have tons of channels from which we get our information, and I think therefore in order to get noticed critics, pundits, bloggers etc. are forced to take hard black or white opinions and stances. Outlandish statements, the sky is falling reactions, and absurdly one way or another opinions are just a reflection our people trying to set themselves apart. The entertainment industry and in this case specifically reading is obviously big enough for both electronic and printed material and any sane person at their very core knows that going forward both will be included in some combination.

    Roger Ebert is a favorite of mine but in this case he’s probably guilty of being a bit of a blow-hard.

  2. They’re so touchless and disconnected from the real thing: plays. Acting is dying and it’s all due to these newfangled moving pictures, or movies as the uncultured young kids call them. All of them are terrible, a disease on our society. How can a child learn to appreciate fictional visual events when they’re restricted to a two-dimensional illusion of movement created by fast-moving celluloid? I’m calling on a boycott of movies and all things related to movies, including production, distribution, and most importantly, the propaganda-pushers who promote them: film critics.

  3. Yea I wonder how many times we’ll have to do this dance. I’m almost thirty and within my lifetime I recall people comparing CDs to vinyl and how something was missing in the audio. Then going to mp3s people missed cover art, notes in the little booklets, shelves filled with albums and just something physical to represent something they loved.

    I’m sure even before my time this type of whining came along with each new innovation.

    When it comes to books though. I just don’t see any reason to put the format into some kind of cage match. I read (and buy) more now because of the Kindle. Not because I like physical books less. It just more convenient and I’m more accustomed to the advantages of digital media. I buy my games on Steam, I stream my music, I watch Netflix/Hulu, and I use a Kindle.

    I will by physical media of any of the above when its something special to me or for sharing purposes.

  4. best part about e-books is that I can read something incredibly trashy while riding a subway without having to resort to wrapping whatever trashy book I’m enjoying at the moment in plain paper, because I’m just not evolved enough not to care that a stranger might see a sleazy cover and judge me for it >_> Well that and how much physical space they save.

    Incidentally I haven’t read back to see if you know of it, but check out

    I have found so many new favorites through it, its scary. and yes, I eventually bought some of them in paper version 🙂

  5. I wonder how this connects to McLuhans “The Medium is the Message”. But I rather agree with you, it is about the story, the contents, not so much about the format a text or video gets delivered. Sure, some movies really cry for 3D or a big screen instead of television like Avatar, but I think this a much bigger difference than scrolling on an e-ink screen vs turning a page of a physical book.

    Ebert also wrote a lot of bull about games as art. Now books vs ebooks. What he is communicating is that he is a movie critic dinosaur that specializes in one field and observes everything else from the standpoint of a mere old man who does not really want to get involved with “new stuff” that is not directly related to his main area of work, film, anymore.

    I also read books as books – because I am used to it. A film critic being concerned about ebooks taking away the childhood from kids who would otherwise physically have experienced a book is really funny….! 🙂

  6. In some ways, eb00ks are actually making reading more accessible, especially for the classics. Project Gutenberg has thousands of works that you wouldn’t be able to find readily, even at most bookstores and libraries. The same goes for current works that are a bit obscure or don’t sell well enough to stay on store shelves or be counted worthy of library shelves.

    And complaints about not being able to share ebooks is absurd. It’s ridiculously easy to share electronic files. Granted, many ebook formats are DRMed for now, but as the medium becomes more popular there will be more alternatives.

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