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Reading in the New Millennium: Forward to the Past?

Posted on Jan 3, 2012
Flickr / The Daring Librarian (CC-BY-SA)

By Juan Cole

I’m a bibliophile of the first water. I have spent what seems half my life in bookstores all over the world. Some readers praise the creamy texture of a well-bound volume published on good paper. But it is less noted that old books smell—of the places they’ve been, of dust, molds and fungi, of the hand sweat of former owners. Opening one is sort of like lifting the lid on a tantalizing curry still being cooked. But I am making the switch to e-books even so, and they are changing the way I read and even what I read.

For those baby boomers in their 60s, old-style books do have substantial drawbacks. Print books are often big and heavy. I’ve had back problems and find it difficult to sit for hours with a doorstop in my lap. Carrying a tome on an airplane is literally a pain. As you age, your vision declines, and all the bifocals in the world won’t necessarily let you read small type comfortably. And then, the bane of the bibliophile is the bulkiness of the thousands of volumes you accumulate in a lifetime. You run out of room at home, or at least room your spouse will let you dedicate to yet more bookcases. Some collectors may be so obsessive that they carefully catalog their own private libraries at home, but mine is strewn haphazardly across bookshelves purchased over 30 years, and I can’t always find what I’m looking for.

An e-book reader such as an iPad equipped with a Kindle or Google Books app resolves many of these problems. It is relatively light and portable. Text size and brightness can be adjusted. (People who complain about iPads being backlit don’t seem to realize there is a “sepia” background and that brightness can be changed.) A couple of thousand books can be accommodated as active files on Kindle and many more can be archived. Stanza, Google Books and other applications are virtually infinite in their capaciousness. Books can be stored in the cloud when not in use. On your tablet, books can be listed by author, title or how recently they’ve been read. 

But beyond solving the back, eye and space problems of the geriatric set, e-books offer interesting functionalities. You can do keyword searches. Most programs allow bookmarking and margin notes. The Kindle app even allows the collectivity of readers to underline favorite passages together. Some readers attach dictionaries, as with the Kindle app for iPads, and even foreign-language dictionaries. Looking up recondite words may become more common if it is as easy as tapping on them, and this sort of dictionary work is an aid in reading books in other languages. 

The tablet book readers are only a platform. It is content that is important. But the two may work together to effect some interesting changes. Google Books are a potentially major change in our reading lives, and the Google Books app for smartphones and tablets gives the reader access to a wide range of out-of-copyright works for free. 

I know many Americans do not read any books once they’re out of school or college. But some do, and what they read has been shaped not only by changing tastes but by availability. The availability consideration is being revolutionized. Moreover, the younger generation is actually made up of voracious readers on the Internet, but they favor short-form writing that is easily accessible, such as blog entries and Op-Eds. Reprints at Web anthology magazines such as Zite or Flipboard of classic essayists in easily digested excerpts is now increasingly possible, and it might take only a few passages to go viral to provoke more sustained interest in the classics.


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By Buffalo Mike, May 15, 2012 at 7:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree it’s a great era for reading and even tho book stores are fading away, books in both e- and traditional formats have never been easier to find and use. The entire public domain in multiple lanaguages is available as never before, thanks to e-readers and the wonderful project.  And, as you point out, the e-reader search function is very useful, especially in fiction or older works that lack indexes. Another great option is the interlibrary loan service at your local library and I find that around here in upstate NY, libraries are thriving - not sure that’s true elsewhere in the US?

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By Arouete, January 12, 2012 at 2:40 am Link to this comment

“a bibliophile of the first water”?  Splain

What are all those buttons on Kindle?

In any even when I read I annotate n the margins, circle words I want to look up ore remember and, especially highlight for quick review. THAT is what a book does in part. Can tablets do that?

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By prosefights, January 7, 2012 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

Let’s All Play War

Department Let me see here, talking about complexity as we are this morning: How does this sound for the potential of a single mistake to blow up into global disaster? Iran, Israel and the US are planning war training exercises in the Persian Gulf.

George Ure
Saturday January 7. 2012

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By Britastina, January 7, 2012 at 11:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t know if anyone is considering the fact that we here, now, are communicating across each other on an electronic device.  That aside, the book vs e-reader is not an either/or situation.

Last year I got into a conversation (turned into a confrontation) with someone who hated the idea of an e-reader.  With nose at full mast, she went on a length about her love of books, their heft, their smell, reverence of the printed word.  Last time I saw her, she had received a Kindle for Christmas and went on and on about how liberating it was.

I, too, revere books.  I collect them.  I spend an inordinate amount of time in book stores, libraries and on used book sellers web pages.  I have thousands of books and continue to buy more. Both “real” books and electronic books have their pro’s and con’s. I doubt one will replace the other but both are delightful.  I will not give either up.

And for those who are dismissive of back problems - I hope you live long enough to have them.  Please remember - youth is not a talent.

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By William MacAdams, January 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You need to change your name to Quisling.  You have
metamorphosed into the monstrosity defined by Shakespeare:
“Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book; he
hath not eat paper as it were; he hath not drunk ink; he is an
animal, sensible only in the duller parts.”

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By Jeffrey, January 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Interesting to note that most commentators are inclined to take an ‘either/or’
position in regard to the choice between REAL BOOKS or electronic tech reading
options.  While it is my intention to remain ever open to considering the best of all
possible options for the best of all possible worlds, and not merely to react and
resist new forms merely due to my unfamiliarity with these, contrasted against my
greater longer-term familiarity and ease with the earlier technology, i.e., REAL
BOOKS, it nevertheless has so far panned out that I have tens of thousands of
REAL BOOKS, and no electronic readers…largely because I have strong leanings
toward all that is most natural, autonomy-supporting, and CHEAP/AFFORDABLE. 
If somebody gifts me with an e-reader and proceeds to teach me how to access
free downloads/reads, then I may experience the new tech.  Until then, I am
enjoying wallowing in my pond, wagging my tail in the mud, reading the books
that I have rescued from dumpsters, yard and moving sales, swap meets, etc.

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By prosefights, January 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm Link to this comment

Not that we remember things more accurately, but that what we remember is more important. History is always bunkum. Facts are remembered imperfectly, to suit a narrative, not to give us a full picture of what went on. That’s why contemporary or recent history is so contentious. Different people remember it differently. Each one recalls some facts and forgets others, depending on the angle from which he saw the events…and what story he is trying to tell about them. Then, over time, these thousands, or even millions, of different honest and fairly accurate historical experiences are fermented into one rich brew…a fiction that is accepted as history, often with little connection to what actually went down.

Bill Bonner
The Daily Rexkoning

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By surrealplumber, January 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm Link to this comment

I’m actually trying to reduce the number of digitized abstractions in my life, so I’ll keep my library, thanks. My signed first editions, all in clear plastic slipcovers (just like my vinyl grin There is a profound aesthetic to such things, a one of a kindness. Digital invariably genericizes all it touches, and makes it infinitely reproduceable. As digital consumes literally everything in a new representation, there must be islands where it is not permitted. Of course, you’re talking to somebody who has never owned a cell phone, either (but for totally different reasons)...

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By Foucauldian, January 4, 2012 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

So am I.  I was never fluent in either my Greek or
Latin—blame it on modern times, I guess—but I
do share the affinity.  Must have lived during the
Golden Age of Greece and beyond.

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By gerard, January 4, 2012 at 11:30 am Link to this comment

Foucauldian:  So glad you appreciated Alexandria. I am permanently stuck in “The Alexandria Quartet.”  I’m weak in real Classicism, however—and sad to say it.  I catch flavors of it but regret not being truly competent in the field.

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By Pat, January 4, 2012 at 10:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Since when is the public library an advantage not everyone has? Public libraries may be quickly closing, or limiting their hours, but last I checked, even in the smallest of towns people had access to a public library.  Also, I was expecting to see a reference in this article to net neutrality, or something similar to it, since it seems that the introduction of new technology to the written word has also vastly increased the corporate elite’s power to control the dissemination of that written word. Sadly, this issue was not addressed.

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By Leefeller, January 4, 2012 at 9:45 am Link to this comment

As the aging population sees changes happening around them faster then they can follow, it does promote obvious disenfranchisement, I refer back to the Beetles or Elvis to see the same kind of generational discontent, discomfort and fear! Change happens as other things, get over it, embrace it or do not, it is up to you, we must (at least I) enjoy life while we are here, for after that it dost not matter!

One day Buggy Whips and Book Stores may only be seen at the Smithsonian! The bigger bookstores forced the smaller book stores out of business, now the bigger book stores are closing. Life is like a good restaurant, life does not last forever neither do good restaurants!

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By Elizabeth Tjader, January 4, 2012 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

I’m with “Naturegirl” and agree completely with her summary. I refuse to succumb to the plastic, blue crystalized screen for reading. I, too, love books; I love their feel, their smell and the added bonus of the aesthetics and warmth they bring to a room.

One other sad consequence in this culture of endless technology is people who are glued to their social networks, blogs, IPads and Twitter accounts seem more and more incapable of holding deep conversations, of wondering or using their imaginations, and lastly, completely disinterested in writing thoughtful or descriptive accounts of whatever it is they’re noting. Everything seems to get reduced to the sound-bite mentality. 

I’m in my mid fifties and I’ll tell you, if Mr. Cole thinks these so called technological marvels will lead to more literate young people, I must be in the wrong place. The only thing I’ve encountered with people using “I” everything is a group of zombies who ignore their kids, ignore the seasons and spend most of the day hitting “send” while the natural world around them, filled with infinite wonders, evolves unnoticed. Neither Emerson or Thoreau would be pleased.

God help our poor Earth; few young people seem to notice Her anymore. They’re all staring at their soul-less screens talking to themselves.

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By Fibonacci65, January 4, 2012 at 9:00 am Link to this comment

Emerson is not the basis for American thought, more like Calvin.  Perhaps you should have spent more time in libraries, with their breadth of choice, rather than book stores with merely their need to sell as their basis for choice.

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By Foucauldian, January 4, 2012 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

Gerard, you’re a classicist.  Nice use of prose.

And yes, the Greek plays and music without chorus,
dance, and the spoken word.  That was a tragic loss.

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By Raylan Givens, January 4, 2012 at 8:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have a Kindle and, for me, it has done what I’m always trying to do in my life: it has made something easier. Buying and downloading books is ridiculously simple. Reading is comfortable. I find a position, place the Kindle in my lap or on my leg, place my hand in a position so my thumb can easily and with miniscule effort swivel and tap the screen to turn the page, and off I go. I find I’m reading more, and, again, much more comfortably. That is basically it for me. I don’t look for deeper meaning in all this anymore than I searched for context and import in the fact that I was sending messages by email rather than in an envelope. There may be profound sociological, educational, and psychological meaning in the ebook revolution, but I just don’t care about that. My Kindle makes things easier for me and that alone is enough.

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By bibliotech, January 4, 2012 at 8:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The article is painfully one-sided. There’s an enormous difference between owning or possessing a book, and merely having the right or privilege of reading it (what eBooks amount to), to say nothing of having Amazon or whomever looking over your shoulder while you read. Plus: there are hard copy texts that are thousands of years old. Good luck reading computer files from the early 90s (remember Y2K? Zip Drives? floppy disks? video and audio cassettes?, etc., etc.,etc.). If the author has his way, people will be on the hook for the next eBook device in the same way the movie industry introduces a “radically new” delivery system every few years.
eBooks are fine, for what they are. but in most ways they’re poor (and insidious) substitutes for real books.

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By Anonymous, January 4, 2012 at 6:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Books?? I never fell for those things when they first came out, with all those pages to keep flipping through. I’m sticking with my old parchment scrolls.

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By Jim, January 4, 2012 at 6:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I love books, have piles by the bed, piles in what one day will be my office and shelves full. Can spend a lot of time looking through used book stores. Books from friends, books I found, books I bought, books I borrowed. I keep thinking about getting an e-book reader, especially for the kids, with the outrageous price of text books(and this still being high school).

But this is what I need in an e-book reader

1. able to buy books,magazines,newspapers from any vender
2. able to down load books from public libraries, universities and other places.
3. multi-format
4. no purchasing tracking software
5. reads PDF’s
6. The Sci- Fi idea; an electronic book with actually pages, blank, waiting for all that digital information, then I can still use a book mark.
7. drop-able
8. ability to add in new reader software.

Until then, if one is patient enough, you can get most of what you want to read through your local library, and most state university libraries can be used by residents.

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By susana espera, January 4, 2012 at 5:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I would very much like to have all the books I read in digital form, because then I could copy out much more easily passages from different books into the notes and books and papers I myself am writing (with proper acknowledgement to the author of the copied material, of course!).  I dream of having a computer that could project many pages of many books simultaneously onto a wall I would use as a screen (the modern version of the scholar with many open books on his/her desk, each opened or bookmarked to relevant pages for the current investigation).  I dream of having software that would allow me to mark passages in many books with my own topic titles, so that when I wanted to see again all the things I had ever read on a particular issue, I could ask the software to go out into all my electronic books and produce the appropriate reading list (i.e., a big personalized index of all the pages of all the books books I had read, to be supplemented by an all-critical google-like capability to search inside ALL eBooks, perhaps using various topic titles we all could become familiar with, or even suggest new entries for.  Since the results of a search on a topic would be voluminous, there would have to be ways to filter, say by date of publication, country of origin, Boolean combinations of topics titles, etc.
Above all, I imagined a world in which we could all share our favorite passages, and our favorite books, with friends and fellow searchers after wisdom.  Since copying an electronic book is essentially free (as long as you’ve paid for the hardware, software, and for Internet, which certainly isn’t free), I saw this sharing being done with no financial barriers, possibly issuing in an intellectual Renaissance, made feasible only by this wonderful new technology.
But the Kindle and its imitators is designed precisely to make that sharing impossible.  And to provide huge profits to the middlemen in the trafficking of human thought and wisdom.  NO copying of anything from your eBook into your computer.  In my opinion, a hideous tiny screen, fit only to read a brief inter-office memo.  I believe there is, probably slightly different for each person, a natural amount our mind wants to see at one time.  Our mind is enriched by the context in which what we are focusing on occurs within, for I believe our unconscious mind had access to everything our eyes can see.  This is also likely to change based on the familiarity or complexity of the content. With the right eBook reader, each person could use the page size (and what font) feels best to them.
And of course, the Kindle and its like are based on charging fees for books that are so large that it makes the books inaccessible to children and the poor, and to a great extent to most of us now in this world in which most incomes are being forced further and further downward.  But then today’s eBook readers seem to rest on the image of reading as always being simply entertainment. 
Perhaps we do have to find a better way to fund the creators of new knowledge and even wisdom than through the copyright laws….  And to fund the very good editors who are now having a hard time finding work, in this age when Internet does allow them to be bypassed by those who don’t know how valuable their help can be to an author.  And to pay the corporations involved in all this too, in a way that just pays them for what they actually contribute, which is mostly initially enabling the process, which then can proceed exceedingly inexpensively without much input on their parts.

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By Leefeller, January 4, 2012 at 4:16 am Link to this comment

The way of the horse and buggy is not forever, change happens like other things. I have been holding off on getting an E reader for many of the points posted below by other diehards.

What of anything, our libraries are closing, books do get dusty and sit there for what,...another day? I remember helping my cousin move his law office, where I got a hernia carting hundreds of law books down 3 flights of stairs.

Not all written work is available on the e reader, so books are the only option, but the convenience of an e reader is quite tempting! By the way my wife has the Barns and Nobel Nook which seems a worthy option to the Kindle!

Is this really progress?

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By timofte laurentiu, January 4, 2012 at 1:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My friend was working on apple and he changed his profession and life build career because he discovered the best method to get a ipad for free. Each problem which I have with iPad it’s finished for me because my friend Mike helps me.
After he told me the best method to get a free iPad 2, it always helps me with all sorts of questions I have. This is his job and I appreciate very much his website .
I hope that he will help you with your all questions. It is an amazing man. All my family got free ipads 2 + white smartcover. It’s a user proof category there if you don`t believe me. This man is my idol

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By 51st Stater, January 3, 2012 at 11:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Too many books,too much dust, too little time.

Got a Kobo for Christmas. Thing is, will it cost me more than the library (where i can order almost any book) and will i lose the forty year pleasure of browsing in secondhand shops and book stores ?

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By Alec Ward, January 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is my first time on your site although not my first time of reading and agreeing with what Chris Heges has to say on many subjects.  Imagine my disappointment on landing to be confronted with stupid adverts that jump about informing me that I have just won an iPad.  I realise that things have to paid for, but, please, I would have expected adverts with just a tad more sophistication, intelligence, good taste, etc. etc.

A very disappointed potential new devotee !!

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By Okasis, January 3, 2012 at 8:40 pm Link to this comment

Interesting to peruse the rants against technology, all printed right here on my very own computer screen which could suffer the dreaded blue death later this evening.

I have severe arthritis in both hands, and can hardly hold most paperbacks, and hardbacks present some real problems. So, not being mired in the 18th Century, I bought an e-reader. This is not to say that I held a book burning to dispose of my beloved friends acquired over the past 60 years, some honestly, and some purloined. I don’t know anyone else who had to use an alias to get a library card, back before you had to prove your identity. I did return the books, but could not afford to pay the fines.

I still buy books too, if I really want to own them. Somehow I haven’t quit adding more and more as time goes on.

I even got a pretty valuable copy of Emerson’s 2 books, in great condition, from my oldest son for xmas - along with a collection of Eugene Deb’s speeches. And I have several 1st editions of Fidel Castro’s writings, including a signed copy of History Will Absolve Me published in Cuba for the 1st Congress of the Communist Party in Cuba.

So the collection grows, but I no longer buy throw away mysteries and stuff that is just for fun. Now I get the books I really want - like the new biography of Joe Hill that has just been published.

As for batteries etc, when I was in the rehab center for 3 weeks, and ran out of stuff on my e-reader [I didn’t plan on breaking my pelvis, and hadn’t added stuff for a while], I simply read the books in the lending library - once again censoring my reading by the size of the book!

Just because I use technology for convenience doesn’t mean I’m forced to never again pick up a printed book!

And, unlike Cole, I don’t use a Kindle or any of the readers limited to ‘Cloud Computing’ I recommend a reader with an SD slot so you can download the books directly to your own equipment. Don’t forget that Amazon erased 1984 from the Kindle, without warning, because of a copyright glitch.

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By gerard, January 3, 2012 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment

I remember many years ago when we lost the great Library at Alexandria with all its tens of thousands of invaluable books. Caesar had been fighting desperately to hold onto Egypt for Rome, and the night his entire fleet stationed in the harbor caught fire, the flames accidentally spread and engulfed the stately building before water could be brought to extinguish the flames.  The hand-copied papyrus scrolls, copied painstakingly from ancient tablets recording all past knowledge of menkind, burned like gauze and the smoke turned the sky over the harbor purple under the raging sun.  The library burned for days, and all of us in the royal court who had been trained to read wept at the tragic loss.
  After that I remember how laborious it was to try to entertain ourselves.  Music did not seem the same without the verses from the old Greek plays, and holding the stone tablets on our laps was impossible, so we sat for hours crouched on the tile floors, leaning forward in the poor light to try to decipher words and sentences from stone tablets which were all that was left of the treasure of the ages.  It was difficult to revert to primitive days,
but we had no choice.

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By marcus medler, January 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

This essay would have Thoreau in a tizzy.

Cole is aiding and abetting the corporate monopolist model by buying into then promoting their lures(sexy girls on cars).

This essay is the same siren song heard for centuries; gee isn’t this neat. He needs to be shamed.

The song has been the gate opener for the atom bomb; the spread of GMO’s, the missionary zeal of Christ/sword handlers etc etc—Innovation, pushed by peddlers of patents and phony placating palliatives are designed to enrich the monopolist.

The consumer did not scream for, or demand from amazon, kindles nor e-readers.  FOOLS open your eyes, RESIST,  back problems omg.

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By prosefights, January 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm Link to this comment

‘History is always bunkum. Facts are remembered imperfectly, to suit a narrative, not to give us a full picture of what went on. That’s why contemporary or recent history is so contentious. Different people remember it differently. Each one recalls some facts and forgets others, depending on the angle from which he saw the events…and what story he is trying to tell about them. Then, over time, these thousands, or even millions, of different honest and fairly accurate historical experiences are fermented into one rich brew…a fiction that is accepted as history, often with little connection to what actually went down.’

bill bonner
The Daily Reckoning
Tuesday January 3, 2012

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By prosefights, January 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm Link to this comment

Editors are usually bad.

Moderators are mostly bad too.

MSM and editors try to shape what is written for their agenda.

Embedded controller forth for the 8051 family editor, Alice, was fired from Academic Press.

Embedded Conroller forth for the 8051 family was rejected by all other publishers execpt Academic Press.

Editors, we believe, are shills who are paid to direct technolgy ... like C/C++/assembler.

And will reject manuscipts which do not comply to their business thinking.

We slipped through.

Albert Gore willing, of course.

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By Bird48, January 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm Link to this comment

Coincidentally just before I clicked on this article I placed an order on line for 14 books—some used, some new but all ink on paper. I too am in my sixties and will probably be buried under a cavalcade of books at some time. I cannot, however, imagine a better way to go than to be covered in the thoughts and dreams and stories of many lives and minds forever preserved in the pages of a real, paper book.

I believe that anything which encourages anyone to read is a good thing however I will not agree that today’s technology will ever replace the value and endurance of ink on paper. Whatever do you do if, while out in the woods reading something great, your batteries go dead? Whatever do you do if your library is stored on some gizmo and it is rendered obsolete in ten years and you can no longer read anything because you cannot get parts for it? Whatever would we do if the Constitution had been recorded on a Beta tape?

No offense to those who’s biggest worries are storage space and time constraints but I will keep collecting my precious paper books and add to the family till I am no longer.

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By coulterbooks, January 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

Hey Juan:

How much were you paid by Kindle or Google Books for such an advertisement for their products??

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By Okasis, January 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment

My homepage is:

Not every essay is attention catching, but every morning I read it and often am stunned by the timeliness of the thoughts.

And yes, Henry David Thoreau’s work is equally worth reading and considering - but it is not conveniently posted daily on the web. I did download it to my e-reader however, along with Edward Lear’s ‘Complete Book of Nonsense’, which I have in hardback and have almost memorized much of it. The Jumblies, and the Dong With a Luminous Nose are worthy of reciting - I used the Dong to irritate my kids at the dinner table if they were misbehaving.

“Hark! He goes! He goes!
The Dong with a luminous nose!

In a hollow, rounded, space it ended, with a luminous lamp withing suspended…”

Hard to replace poetry like that with the nonsense printed in the daily paper!

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By naturegirl1150, January 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To me reading is a tactile as well as a visual experience. I don’t like handling plastic. When I read, I often flip back through pages to previous chapters, something you can’t do with an e-reader (except one page at a time). Books by Emerson and Thoreau are old friends. I want them on my book shelves. I use many of my nonfiction as references and know exactly where to find them. How tedious it would be to use an e-book for bird identification! I am not stupid enough to take a “doorstop” book with me on any flight, nor do I think I own one. I love the smell and feel of books, epecially used, knowing that someone else enjoyed them as much as I. Also, I don’t need batteries to read a real book. Since most of my books are bought used and often passed own, I’m sharing myself and recycling at the same time. You can keep your plastic, Mr. Cole.

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By curmudgeon99, January 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment

I am sure that Juan would also recommend revisiting Henry David Thoreau’s work as well

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