E-Libris: What is a Book Anyway?

This is a question much discussed in academia, in newspapers and trendy magazines, and being constantly analyzed by pundits everywhere.

I think, however, this question should not be asked by science fiction writers. We’ve been thinking of alternate modes of reading for ages. Shigawire spools, Star Trek PADDs® , brain implants, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why should we even think twice when offered the chance to get our hands in a device that can storage hundreds of books and allows us to switch between several books faster than a desktop or notebook interface could, with all the benefits (like doing a search for certain words or writing annotations)?


The history of reading media is a fluid one; it was never set in stone. From clay tablets to papyrus to parchments, and almost finally, codices (the direct ancestors to our current hardcovers and paperbacks), humankind was always trying to improve the way to experience a better access to the written word.

As weird as it may sound today, not everybody liked the idea of a written medium for recording words. Plato may be the first (at least in Western history) who suggested that writing things down was a signal of the decline of civilization, because then we would lose our ability to memorize – and the oral transmission of history would end. He wasn’t exactly wrong about that last assumption, but Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were since then translated to the written mode, and after that to the printed medium (and, today, to the audiovisual medium via the movies and even the Internet). The story is not lost to us, even after 2.500 years.

Paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, a book is a book is a book is a book. Does it really need to be contained between the covers of the codex? Much as I love a physical book, with its texture and its smell (yes, I’m a fetishist) and the name of this column is both a homage and a reference to the famous Anne Fadiman book, Ex-Libris (which I love and reread now and then in its physical version), I still love better what its insides tell me. I’m a haruspex of books: I am a reader of the entrails of the sentences; I take the coils of paragraphs out of the body of the book and divine its meanings still hot, fuming, and fragrant, sometimes keeping them only to my pleasure, sometimes sharing them with others, because otherwise what’s the fun in that?

What I am, at the end of the day, is a reader of stories. Stories told by people since time immemorial, by women and men who used their brains, their voices, their bodies, and their imagination, to tell other women and men things they saw, heard, felt, or simply thought – for such is the power of the mind.

So, when at last those stories started to become available in digital format, I became very curious to read them. It wasn’t love at first sight, but you might call it fascination: I have always loved the computer and the screen, and since I was a teenager (when I bought my first PC, a TK-82C made in Brazil, a Sinclair-type computer) I became quickly used to it, and after that to bigger, sturdier PCs, and the digital world of the Internet, followed by the World Wide Web, without ever letting go of the paper books.

And so it came to pass that I became a fan of the digital book, or e-book, and then, from 2010 on, of the e-reader itself. In this column, I will talk not about any particular title (although sometimes I may have to do exactly that, but only to illustrate a point – I will also review books for SF Signal from now on, but not in the column); my intention is write about e-books and e-readers from my experience. I’ve been experimenting with several formats for the past few years; you will read some of my findings, joys, and pains here.

Thanks to John DeNardo and the team at SF Signal for welcoming me. I hope I can add something interesting to this treasure trove of science fiction news and information in general.

33 thoughts on “E-Libris: What is a Book Anyway?”

  1. Okay, bring it on, Fabio. At this point I’m 2/3 closed minded to the e-book and it’s accessories, such format and devices have looked too much like a cheap, easy way out for publishers who are not savvy enough to make a profit with ink-and-paper books, or are too greedy to make less profit. E-books and readers are a major factor, I believe, in the closure of brick and mortar bookstores (though on-line booksellers are as much to blame, if not more so).

    But I’m trying – and it’s not easy – to stay open-minded on this topic. I have thousands of books, I have been reading them for 60 years, I’ll be a very tough sell. I like the feel, smell, use of, let me call them real, books. I like bookmarks, have many dozens of them, useful items which can be very attractive, – art – something no keep-my-place electronic version can match. Plus, once I buy a printed book, the buying is done. I don’t need pay for electricity from the wall or a battery, and then another battery, and another… to read it. And, no limited usage: I can loan it, gift it, sell it. I can scan the bookshelves and see it’s spine when I’m deciding what to read next. 

    There’s an awful lot to like about a printed book, including the feel of turning the pages. But I’ll listen, read what you have to say. I hope to learn something from you, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make me think about the possibility of changing my mind. So, as I say, bring it on.

  2. Richard, I’m also a huge fan of, as you say, real books. I once had thousands of books myself, but with several movings I had to sell, give, or donate most of them. (Still have more than a thousand, though, and I love reading pocket books at night, in the comfort of my bed – as I also do love reading an e-book in my Kindle.)

    But obviously you’ve got a point when you talk about the matter of DRM, for one matter, and electricity, for other. That’s exactly what this column is for – to discuss pros and cons of such things, via the eyes of someone who loves books in all their formats (namely, me. :)

    I will not try to preach to you or to anyone – merely tell some stories about what I’ve been doing so far with e-books and e-readers. I also deal with paper books, and you can read about it in some reviews I’ll be doing for SF Signal, as well as in my own blog, The Cogsmith.

    As you yourself said, There’s an awful lot to like about a printed book. And I would add, there’s an awful lot to say about it too. The thing is, everyone is doing that already. Nobody speaks for e-books or e-readers (and no, I’m not being paid by any company – this is a free, entirely nerdy thing). I only thought I should. Hope you enjoy reading the columns – and continue to enjoy reading your books. I sure do enjoy reading my paper ones! :)

  3. I think the whole nostalgic argument for printed books being a better “experience” than ebooks is something that will not change in actuality…it will change actuarially. (with apologies to whoever I stole that from)

    Personally I love being able to hold and read a chihuahua killer tome in one hand, comfortably, for hours…

    And that I now can carry more books than are in Mr Kiesche’s basement in a pocket.

    TW.

  4. I was also dubiously initially. I won a Kindle but left it in its packaging for a while. When I finally tried it out I quickly began to love it. It’s a lot easier to lug around, especially when you’re trying to read a 1000-page tome like “Wise Man’s Fear”. I can sit with it in bed and not get aching arms and then take it on the train.

    With respect to the texture of pages, the smell, etc. – initially I was nostalgic but that fell away when I still had access to the story. I’d also recommend getting a good cover for the Kindle – I use a brown hemp cover which gives the device more of a rough feel, less like a device.

    My only issue with them so far is one that I haven’t seen covered much anywhere: International copyright. For anyone outside of the UK or America, many books are unavailable on the Amazon sites due to publishing restrictions. This is very frustrating – I want to give them money for a book but they won’t give me the book. I think this sort of heavy DRM may cause issues for a world-wide adoption and encourage piracy, unless it gets sorted.

  5. With you all the way. I still get the viceral pleasure derived from holding a book, but consider it a seperate thing from the actual reading. Sort of like the difference between dining in a nice restaurant or at home. The surroundings are seperate from the meal, though they do affect my appreciation of it.

    80% of my reading is now done on a tablet, principally an iPad because it’s large display lets me read pdfs of books without eyestrain.

    So here’s a question for you. Are PDFs eBooks? I certainly think so, though there are those (publishers typically) that tell me no. As far as I can see, and eBook is an eBook is a….

    Glad you’re going to be contributing to this area. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your column.

  6. Aidan, being able to read in bed is one of the major advantages of the Kindle for me. I could read Pat Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind in bed without having it making *bonk* at my face every time I started to get drowsy. (Alas, couldn’t say the same thing about A Game of Thrones – I bought the entire series on pocket before I could afford an e-reader, so the Martin novel was very muscular to me, so to speak.)

  7. Ernest, the restaurant metaphor is more than adequate. (It made me think of that scene in The Matrix, when Cypher picks up a bit of a steak with a fork and says:”Damn, I know this is not real, but it IS good!” – or something to that effect.)

    I don’t have an iPad yet – I’m planning to but one until the end of the year. Let’s see how it goes.

    If PDFs are books? Certainly! I have something to say about it in the near future – in fact, several somethings. Maybe more than a column on my love-hate relationship with PDFs. Thank you for reading. Stay tuned, I’ll be talking about PDFs and other formats soon.

  8. Great column, and I’m looking forward to more. I love my Kindle, rah rah rah! I love the convenience, the comfort (no more aching arms!), the storage capacity, and the saving of trees (assuming e-readers don’t have a bigger carbon foot print than print books).

    As for column ideas, I second having one on International copyright issues. I’d also like to have your input on the impact of ebooks on niche subgenres. Another issue is story length–will ebooks revive and/or create new venues for SF shorts/novellas?

    There are so many fascinating conversations going on about ebooks these days and I’m loving every minute of it. For me, ebooks have meant many positive changes in my reading habits and I fully embrace them (ebooks & the changes).

  9. I am one who would prefer not to have to make a choice. I read some books with the Nook app on my iPhone and appreciate being able to carry a multitude of books in my pocket. But buying books is my major vice (average couple hundred bucks monthly)and  all my extended family are readers, so I loan books regularly and repeatedly. e-books just don’t cut it for that.

  10. Heather, the question of International copyright also means a great deal to me. I live in Brazil, and, even though my country is undergoing big economical changes as we speak, we are definitely still behind the so-called First World (such denominations of First and Third World are still true, but they are rapidly turning more and more into a convention rather than absolute realities). More on that soon.

    Re: niche and size – excellent ideas, thank you! As you can see, there’s already quite a big territory to cover when we speak of e-books. And yes, I agree with you, e-books are all about positive change. There are problems? Sure, and they will also be discussed here – but right now, I strongly believe the benefits outweigh the occasional nuisances.

  11. Terentia, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Who says you need to make a choice? This is nonsense. You may perfectly live with BOTH in your life. I intend to do exactly this. (I’m also addicted to buying books at bookstores – they are hallowed ground to me. :)

  12. I don’t think we are going to have to chose.  There will always be paper books.  Sure, most of the bookstores will probably close (indies probably have a better chance of surviving than the big ones), but there will always be hardbacks for the collectors.  I don’t have an e-reader yet, but I can easily see myself never buying a paperback again.  I would however, buy a hardback of a fiction book I liked or initially buy a hardback of a non-fiction book I expect to be of some quality.

    Plus, the e-book is putting pressure on the staid publishing industry, which I am all for.

  13. My 2 pennies:  I do not consider PDF to be an eBook format.  PDF is a format expressly created for maintaining text layout/formatting, so on small screen devices that means zooming in to see text and panning the pages left/right to read it.  Not an enjoyable experience at all. True eBook formats (like .ePub and .mobi) allow eBook reading devices to reflow the text according to the device that displays it and the user’s desire to change it’s appearance on that device. Anything else is simply too much work for me as a reader.

    I’m also a fussy reader, so yeah, I like the ability to read an eBook on multiple devices, whichever suits the current environment.  I have a Kindle, an iPad and a smartphone, and I find myself using all three devices for eBooks reading at different times.

  14. For the first time I can travel much lighter to and from work because I can read books on my Android phone. It may not be the perfect solution but it’s better than carrying yet one more fantasy brick around with me.

  15. John, I have some theories on the PDF format – but if I tell all about them here, I won’t have any material for the next columns, will I? ;)  So let’s say, for now, that I agree with you in part about it, and I’m totally a fussy reader as well, having many reading platforms on which I can enjoy my books, depending on where I am or where I’m going to.

  16. The PDF issue that John brought up is interesting.  Because my cheapy eBook reader (Aluratek Libre) defaults to PDF reflow enabled, many PDFs are indistinguishable from .epub books on it.  (You can change the font size with panning possible).  I certainly see John’s point, but because of my personal experience, I can’t help but see PDFs as every bit as valid an eBook format as .epub or .txt

    Great first column, Fábio, you got many people thinking.

     

  17. I have been buying e-texts for years from Fictionwise in PDF – mainly short stories, short story collections or fiction magazines. I read them on my laptop. I would love to go totally ‘ebook’ as I do most of my reading commuting. However, after a wake-up experience in New Zealand, of being prevented from viewing a series of ‘Lost’ on DVD I had bought, because my laptop was ‘out of region’, I am not interested in DRM’d ebooks, which essentially reduces my choice to near zero. I am hoping to borrow a Kindle to see if Amazon’s DRM can be reliably removed and my reading details kept safe from Amazon’s insatiable usage data collection –  if so then no more paper books for me!

    One final point – because I am in the UK I have occasionally had problems buying ‘American’ ebooks. Surely global language rights should replace geographic ones for ebooks? Geographic rights make sense for physical books but surely not for ebooks?

    Alan P.

  18. Dave, PDFs are being sort of ressignified. The downside of it is that they are not being improved as documents, but certain apps are being created to get around its, let say for now instead of a better word, “defects” (or lack of qualities).

    And thank you! Don’t forget stopping by every other Tuesday!

  19. Alan, it surely makes no sense any longer to see in a site an e-book being offered, to have a valid credit card and not being able to buy it. In a world where capitalism is king, I don’t even think global language rights should replace geographic ones for e-books. I think that the gates should be opened: these barbarians have coins in their purses!

  20. I’m a former skeptic who gave in, bought a Nook, and really likes it. But I also like having the paper book to switch back and forth. And certainly the feel and smell of the paper wins out over the ebook in the long run still. Part of it for me is the way the books are fomatted is often annoying. Sometimes the quality needs improvement. I hate the way they number pages and you stay on the same page while flipping for a long time. But I do read on my Nook, and I do enjoy it. It’s especially good for travel and working out.

  21. Welcome Fabio! 

    I cannot divorce my love of stories, of “books” from the physical object.  They are just too intertwined.  And thus I will probably not convert to the digital format until forced to.  If I can’t smell the ink and paper, I’m not interested.  I read a lot of things digitally, but that isn’t the way I want to read a book. 

    But I have yet to find fault with those who embrace it. 

    And given that you mentioned Anne Fadiman (I reread Ex Libris and At Large, At Small on a regular basis), I cannot hold it against you that you’ve become a convert.  :)

     

  22. Plato’s remarks that books would mean ‘people would lose the ability to memorize’ are eerily similar to Orwell’s in ‘Politics and the English Language.’

    But such schizophrenic attitudes are not uncommon in times of cultural change and social stress, which times I would submit we are in right now. It strikes me as odd that so many science fiction authors are so backward-looking in a genre which pretends to be forward-looking and about change; technological change, above all else.

    http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/

    http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/in-front-of-your-nose/

    Will you be reviewing e-books which did not come from Big Publishing? 

  23. Thanks for the warm welcoming, Carl!

    I love Anne Fadiman’s books. She’s a true bibliophile, and for me that’s the heart of the matter. Am I less of a bibliophile because of my digital passion? I don’t think so, but I’ll write more on that later.

    And do you know her father, Clifton Fadiman, once edited a MASSIVE science fiction anthology? I have the old hardcover here with me – a late publisher with whom I worked in the 80s gave it to me after he gave up on translating it (it was a damn shame, because I WOULD BE THE ONE to translate it, for crying out loud). And this old, somewhat battered paper book, oh, man, I will definitely not get rid of it.

  24. Excellent reminder, Louis! I happen to have this Orwell essay here (in a ponderous tome I bought last year in London, mind you!) Will read it again and give it the consideration it deserves for a future column. (I just saw you put the links to the digital version – thank you! It will save my poor arms the exercise! :)

    I don’t intend to do reviews here particularly, but I sure will talk about self-published e-books, small press ones, new formats that couldn’t find their way via the Big Publishers. But if you (and every e-book author is invited) wish to send me a book, I can review it in SF Signal or in my blog and link it for a discussion here. I also intend to interview authors who decided to publish mostly or strictly e-books.

     

     

     

  25. I love paper books, from MMP to TP to hardcover. I love the smell (except when I buy a book from ebay and it turns out to be from a heavy smoker), I love the touch, just about everything about them. I had sometimes periods of obsessive collecting. But I also had to move three times in the past 2 years, and after that I was ready to give in. As much as I love the dead tree format, as I get older I prefer convenience.

    Another thing is, I except that while at the moment you still get more books in dead tree format, this will change at some point in the future. For me, an ebook reader is not just about convenience, but about access. Midlist writers, publishers completely dedicated to ebooks, short story collections, there are a few reason to use an ebook reader.

    But I still keep a few dead tree editions around. Mostly everything with a lovely cover (like the two McAuley books from PYR about the quiet war).

  26. I bought a Kindle a few months ago, and have fallen in love reading with it, rather than a book, hard.

     

    I can think of one area where paper copy books still have an advantage over electronic–signatures.  If I have a paper copy of an author’s book, I can have the author sign the book as a keepsake and a memory of the meeting. Ebooks aren’t really amenable to that practice, although I’ve heard of a few authors trying to find some “workarounds”.

  27. You are welcome Fabio.

    @Paul

    There are some ideas circulating about how to do signatures for e-books.  A true solution probably won’t happen until they can actually write on a touch screen.  Though, I must admit the desire for signatures of any type (author, athlete, etc.) has always baffled me.  It strikes me as worship and placing another human being higher than myself.  Thus, the signature thing isn’t an issue for me.

  28. I agree that you (or anyone for that matter) is no less a bibliophile for embracing the digital book than those who don’t.  After all, the majority of those who are reading digitally are still and have long been lovers of books in the first place.  I have been in similar discussions of digital art vs. art created with traditional means.  Is it all art?  For me the answer has always been “yes”.   Both are very different, and it cannot be denied that the tangible nature of a painting or a book is “different” than something that exists only in a digital format.  But that is all it is, ‘different’.   Can we prefer one over the other and everyone be okay with that?  I hope so.  I certainly prefer being able to hold a book in my hand, smell the book smell, turn pages (in the traditional manner) etc.  But I’m also happy that the digital format means people are buying books, authors are making money and will continue writing, and for some (those with eyesight issues for one) the digital format will keep them reading when they might not be able to do so with the same ease, if at all, otherwise.

  29. It strikes me as worship and placing another human being higher than myself.  Thus, the signature thing isn’t an issue for me.

     

    I look at signatures as “memories”:  “Hey, look, I really met XXX” once upon a time. 

    Although I utterly failed at bringing my camera the last time I met an author, its similar to why I would want to take a photograph of an author.

     

     

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