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Ebooks, schmeebooks

After wrapping up our March special issue on books in the digital era, a meeting about Horn Book web strategy, and another meeting to tour the virtual space that will host an upcoming SLJ event about YA books (this summer; I’ll keep you posted), I’m feeling completely pixelated. I recognize that I have an imagination that turns rather too easily to the apocalyptic, but does anybody else worry that a) we’ll be completely fucked if the electricity goes out and b) (slightly more reasonably) that once we are reading everything on a screen, books as we know them will cease to exist? I know, humankind’s need for Story, blah blah blah, but I think the current thinking and/or worries about ebooks apply only to a transitional moment. Once we are reading everything on screens, what will we want to read? I assume the alphabet is too broadly useful to go away anytime soon, and people will still read, but will they read, say, novels (themselves a product of a certain stage of technology)? Twenty years ago, you could hold a book in your lap. Now you can have the whole world there, whose virtual nature will only become more real. What will make you choose to read a book?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Elizabeth Law says:

    I dunno. I’ve been an avid reader on my Kindle since spring 2008, and besides all the manuscripts I’ve read for work and a few works of nonfiction and humorous essays I’ve enjoyed, I’ve read at least 25 novels on it. Many more if you count the novels I’ve read more than once with my e-reader, and that list includes the Twilight series (yup), Emma, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Hunger Games, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. In addition to those titles I’ve read and those reread, there are about 15 novels on my Kindle that I started and abandoned, but may get back to.

    All of which seems a great deal like the way I read fiction before my Kindle. Before or after I owned an e-reader, I abandoned some novels and reread my favorites. To me the real difference I see is how easy it is for a rereader like me to go back to one I love. When I’m tired on a flight, for example, I can turn to a comfortable old favorite. Which reminds me, when are they putting the K.M. Peyton backlist and the works of Elizabeth Enright on e-book?

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I guess I’m thinking of the future, not the present. But I think dedicated ereaders will be a thing of the past before we know it.

    Open Road has been bringing back some good backlist children’s (and adult). Like Planet of Junior Brown. Talk to Jane Friedman!

  3. I’m even more worried than you, Roger. I think about the electricity, yes. And also the disappearance of libraries and bookstores. The disappearance of informed browsing, replaced by algorithms. The disappearance of serendipity. The loss of the pleasure of examining friends’ bookshelves. The joy of texture, smell, font, good paper, and everything else the book represents. I feel sorry for future generations, and not just because of this.

  4. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    I also feel sorry for future generations, and what’s truly sad is that they won’t know what they’re missing. Remember when science fiction stories used to show a society in which people had stopped eating food and all your needs came in a pill? That’s what e-books are, and there are people today, right now as I type, who don’t get that.

  5. Elizabeth Law says:

    Ok, why are e-books food that comes in a pill? Lyle Blake Smythers, I am a woman with a large book collection whose only modification to my large two-bedroom apartment was to have a floor to ceiling custom-made bookshelf installed that runs the length of my living room. (And that is hardly my only bookshelf.) I love books, and I also really love reading. I get defensive when people imply I must not love books because I read on my Kindle all the time. I agree with Roger that dedicated e-readers will disappear and everything will be one device, but so what? As everyone who has posted a comment here knows, sometimes you just “get lost in a book.” And my own point is, I get just as lost whether reading on my kindle of a hard copy of a novel. And Roger, my point above was, why would I stop loving novels just because there’s a lot of other stuff available to me? There’s a ton available now and I’m a busy social networker yet nothing satisfies in the way a novel does. By the way, serendipity and browsing happens all the time with e-readers, too.

    I think printed books and e-books will co-exist. Before I got my Kindle in early ’08, I visited the glorious Strand Bookstore on 12th street in NYC about 4 times a year, ALWAYS coming home with more than I promised myself I would buy. After I got my Kindle, that statistic remained exactly the same.

    You know what this reminds me of? The “TV will be the death of the reader” argument I heard growing up.

  6. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    Elizabeth, you make some good points, and perhaps the brevity of my comment might lead some people to misunderstand me. I don’t believe that the rise of e-books will lead to the death of the printed book. Despite the tyranny of the combustion engine, people do still ride horses. Just not as much, and for different reasons. People do still own and listen to vinyl records (although other people may not understand why they do). And people still attend live performances of theater and music, although our technology for capturing them has grown immensely.

    I guess I want to emphasize that reading on a screen is not the same as reading a book you hold in your hand, for many reasons. Just as watching the videotape of Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s dark and twisted masterpiece SWEENEY TODD is not the same as being in the same room with her while she’s doing it.

    And, yes, I understand that the content is more important than the package. But the package has value too.

    And, yes, I understand the value of expediency, of convenience, of practicality. And sometimes you have to make do with the best you can get. Once Angela is gone, that video of her performance is all we will have of it, just as the movie of STREETCAR is now all that we have of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Sometimes we have to settle. And that’s what I feel we are doing with the e-book. Is it better than nothing? Sure. I won’t argue with that.

  7. Elizabeth Law says:

    I don’t agree with your analogy, Lyle. I saw the original Sweeney Todd on Broadway, yet the video doesn’t even have the man who introduced and won a Tony for the role, Len Cariou, as Sweeney, it has George Hearne. That’s one example of why there’s no definitive way to capture a theatrical piece. Also the video only shows you what the camera picks up, not what I myself, as an audience member, chose to watch at any particular moment. I am grateful the taped production exists because I enjoy watching it, and it helps me remember some of the experience I had in the theater. But it is NOT the same as a live performance by a long shot. Angela and Len aren’t engaging with me and other members of the audience when I see it on video, I can’t hear a gasp when Sweeney slits his first throat as I remember hearing when I saw it live, and the relationship between the performer and audience member is non existent on tape. Whereas in a live production we are very much part of it–and the performance changes from night to night.

    But my thrill when the narrator in Franzen’s Freedom suddenly switched from an omniscient narrator to one of the characters in the novel, or the way I couldn’t help speeding up to find out something crucial at the end–that would have been exactly the same on printed or electronic page.

  8. most of this kind of “schmeebooks” are helpful
    i want to try this one also
    thanks for sharing friends

  9. Lately, I have been worried that as everyone converts to e-books, the used book market will dry up. If scarcity drives up the price of used books, then I don’t see the publishers will have any incentive to lower the price on old e-books. Right now, I could probably find the Franzen book for a couple of dollars at the Friends of Library Sale. Maybe some day, we’ll be paying $9.99 for every single book we buy. Won’t that suck.

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