Some Rambles on eBooks vs. eMusic

ImageThe thing about recorded music is that it has always required buying an encoded object that you needed to put into a machine to listen to; everything from records to tapes to CDs required a player, and this hasn’t changed in the age of downloaded audio files. That matchbox-sized mp3 player in your shirt pocket really isn’t all that different from the paperback-sized Walkman clipped to my belt in 1982—the technology has advanced, obviously, but the role of the machine hasn’t.

But the book . . . ah, the book is a different story (as it were). You just open one with your hands and read the data on your own. It’s a tactile, organic experience, which is not quite replicated by eBooks. I don’t have anything at all against eBooks, I’ve bought them and I’ve written them. But unlike listening to recorded music, which still involves headphones or speakers just as in the days of LPs, the experience of reading has more fundamentally changed as it moved to the digital world from paper.

Sure, you’re still reading the printed/displayed word, but the feel of it is not the same. I for one continue to crave the choice of the printed book, even as I buy more eBooks. I don’t have the same feelings for my LPs gathering dust in the basement. Although the hiss and crackle of an oft-played LP induces a certain nostalgic fondness, I’d still rather hear the music clear and clean from an audio file. Outside of ancient texts, reading words from a page of a book doesn’t generally involve any comparable degradation, and the words from a printed novel will be just as easily read ten years from now. By contrast, I own eBooks—which, I must emphasize, were legally purchased—that I can no longer open due to outdated software or arcane DRM schemes. It’s like someone came into my house, pulled a book off the shelf, and glued all the pages together. Although, to be fair to eBooks, I do own some vintage printed books that would fall apart if I attempted to read them, that’s a little like a scratched old LP.

I think printed books and eBooks will exist side by side for a long time yet, even as LPs are still around alongside the iPod. And they will definitely come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, because they don’t require batteries. Just be careful with your glasses, Burgess. There’s no adjusting the font size on paper.

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