As recently as 2010, I lived with my family in the Land of the Billy Bookcase. We had three of them in the large room that served as both the laundry room and my office. There were two installed in the family room, and there was one in our bedroom. And that was just the tall ones. We had a short one in our room, and there was a different kind of shelf in the kitchen for the cookbooks. No books were ever thrown away, all were treasured, and we lived surrounded by them. That had been our lifestyle—Greg’s and mine—from the time we were married. Our boys had bookcases, too, but by then they were married and had taken them off to their own homes.
Sorrow struck in two increments. First of all, 2010 was the year Greg lost his job in a layoff at his company. Economies needed to be made. We left our book-laden home for an apartment with a bedroom for us and a bedroom for an office. We brought along one tall Billy and bought three of the short ones, and that was all we had room for. Our collection was ruthlessly culled, though boxes of books came with us into our new digs. A married son, who probably understood us better than we did ourselves, gave us a Kindle to share. We immediately began loading it up, and we managed somehow to share it without seeking the divorce courts. Most college books, loads of Seventies paperbacks including Greg’s sci-fi and my detective stories, went to Goodwill. We felt a bit bereft, but we managed.
Then in the following year, the real tragedy attacked. Greg passed away in his comfortable chair one summer evening. It really doesn’t bear talking about, but he was gone. At that point, along with the necessary grief work, I had to face the fact I needed to move to smaller digs. The most I could handle was one tall Billy and two of the short new ones, and they had to accommodate the music collection as well. Box after box was lovingly and sadly taped up and sent to Goodwill. I hung on to my Kindle.
It has distressed me for years to hear people say, “I could never give up any of my books. I don’t understand people who can give up their books. How on Earth can people read with any enjoyment on a gadget?” Nobody, least of all me, wants to be a Debbie Downer by saying something like, “Try losing two homes and your spouse in the space of a little more than a year. Somehow physical books take a backseat.”
I recently blundered into a blog by a writer and avid reader named Luke Harkness. He blogs about books and writing at http://lukeharkness.com. I enjoyed his blog immensely, and that’s where I stumbled across his comparison between physical books and e-books.
At many levels, such comparisons don’t hold up. But Luke stuck to personal observations and practicalities, and that made his statements intriguing. He dealt with Ease of Access; Aesthetics; Collection Factor; Functionality; and Price. I’m going to let you read his opinions on his blog—hopefully you’ll enjoy it and want to revisit—and I’m going to hijack his categories for my own opinions. You can find the article at https://www.lukeharkness.com/features/comparison-physical-books-vs-ebooks/.
Here’s what I think thirteen years after being exiled from the Wonderland of Billys:
Ease of Access
I’ve been spoiled by my e-books. I have arrived at the point where when I want a book, I want it now. If I can get to the library, fine. Indy booksellers are scarce on the ground in my city, and I patronize them whenever I can. The days of running to the mall to the chain bookstore are at an end, sad to say. I order physical books online, usually secondhand, but I’ll freely admit to relying on my Kindle to get what I want in “instant gratification” mode.
Once I’ve got the book on my e-book reader, I’m set wherever I go. That’s convenient for me, especially as (a) I’m likely to forget a physical book; and (b) I can’t carry around a lot of weight, so my reader streamlines things for me.
No question for me, a physical setup is infinitely more pleasing. I set up a “Jane Austen” shelf and a “Writer’s Shelf” on the small bookcase next to my desk. The early edition of “The Works of Miss Austen” with its worn and burnished leather cover, beckons invitingly. The “Chicago Manual of Style” is there in hardcover, of course, and I use it. But I have hung on to a volume called “Words into Type” which is a manual for old-fashioned compositors, proofreaders, and other denizens of the print shops of yore. I doubt it will ever be digitized. I have a shelf with old favorites of Greg’s and another where two family Bibles repose. My home is graced by every well-loved volume. It’s also graced by copies of the books I’ve published, but that’s another story.
I must admit I haven’t made up my mind on this one. For Mr. Harkness it’s a question of “I must have this book.” I’d like to feel that way, but I can’t afford to. The one place I allow myself to splurge is a bookseller in the Midwest called Better World Books. All their books are used, mostly gently, and I have picked up a couple of genuine steals, including things I needed for my books that are way, way out of print. I’m going to call this one a toss-up. The limiting factor is finances.
I’ve got to hand it to the e-book, it’s all about functionality. My e-books are instantly available to me wherever I am, on whatever device is handy. That includes the laptop that makes up my “main” computer, my iPad, my iPhone, and yes, even my Kindle. In a pinch I could borrow a device from somebody else and get the book on that. This one melds into “Ease of Access” for me.
To my astonishment, this one’s a toss-up. On the one hand, we have Kindle Unlimited, and if you’re a genre fan, you can find a lot of great reading that way. And yes, Kindle books even at full price are in line with paperbacks. If it’s a book you really need in hardback, chances are you’ll find a way to pay for it. But that’s just the one hand. On the other hand, we have some really inventive ways to buy books. I became a convert during the recent Coronavirus unpleasantness when I could not go out. I mean, I was stuck at home. That’s when I became a convert to Better World Books. Not only do they have an astonishing access to books at all kinds of used booksellers, but they have incredible sales every month or so. I was finally sold when I found that they donate a percentage of their sales to literacy and libraries, including my hometown favorite the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Pratt received a substantial donation a couple of years back. And this week as I was preparing to write this post, I learned to my amusement that they have a copy of my first novel, “Rose Cottage,” on offer—in used/good condition for $71. Yes, you read that right and I have no idea why.
So, there you have it. I think the important thing is that you can be a great lover of books and reader whichever platform you choose. And folks with large-ish homes, please go easy on those of us who have to step outside to change our minds.