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6 Things You Can’t Do with an E-Book

I liked this post on Matador about things you can’t do with an e-book (that you can, of course, do with a real book). Five of the ones she mentions are:

1. Make a mini secret safe and hide it on your bookshelf. You know, to hide your, um, decoder ring. Or whatever. Even your (yes, really) iPod. This trick, of hollowing out a book’s pages and sticking it back on your bookshelf is a surprisingly complicated maneuver, requiring precision, patience, and a really sharp X-acto knife. And it absolutely requires a real, paper book.

2. Show off your wildly erudite and obscure reading taste on the subway. I will admit to craning my neck on more than one occasion to see if someone’s reading something I should have read, or would like to read. A kinship in geekery, similar literature tastes, sympathy for people you don’t know, all of it gone with an ebook. With an ebook, the words going into your brain are private, you read completely alone.

3. Press flowers and autumn leaves. When I was a kid, we’d pick up a couple of the first pinkish-yellow autumn leaves and press them between waxed paper in the biggest book we had, a Random House dictionary, with a wheat cover and black finger tabs, XY and Z all together on one. If we forgot about the leaves, there they’d be, the next time you went to look up a word, colophon, for example, which is the insignia at the beginning of the book, which you also won’t see on your ebook.

4. Throw it across the room when you’re pissed off at the ending. It’s a great feeling to know that you could smash your book down onto the floor, the literary equivalent of slamming the phone down, or pushing your cell phone talk button extra hard. Just as the person you’re hanging up on can’t tell how irritated you are, the author has no idea how much you hated their ending. But you wouldn’t try it with an ebook. Unless it’s got some fancy super extra protective case I’ve never heard of, in which case, it would just bounce, unsatisfyingly.

5. You can’t warm up your room with the colorful spines of books you’ve read. Or will read. Or want to hand to guests just because you know they’ll love them. This is perhaps the worst loss of all to me, the not being able to see just how pretty books are, not being able to share in the sense of moving something from your hand into someone else’s, not synching in some virtual, click-a-box way.

And that’s true. But there’s so much more, too. You can’t go into someone’s home and peruse their shelves, which is one of the most fun parts of getting to know someone. You can’t leave an e-reader on your beachtowel while you go into the water, either – between theft and sand, it’d be a no-no. You can’t take an e-reader in the bath safely. You can’t inscribe an e-book to a friend or family member, with something loving written inside it.

For me, I know that if I go on a trip longer than a couple of weeks, I will likely purchase and love and be grateful for a small device that I can stuff full of stories. But I will always be a lover of, reader of, buyer of, celebrator of real books.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

7 Responses to “6 Things You Can’t Do with an E-Book”

  1. AGREE!!!
    Been reading on iPad recently. Even thought it’s very convenient, I still love physical book. No ebook reader can replace it!

  2. Hi – don’t know where else to put this, but I thought it might be of interest to you (for a blog article or otherwise): http://www.chimphaven.org/chimpanzees-reading-books/
    They were asking for donations of books for the apes last Christmas. This is a report about what happened after that. There’s some neat photos of chimps reading board books on the bottom of the page.

  3. I am a carpenter working in home renovation. Almost the first thing I do when beginning a new job, after introducing myself of course, is to start shooting glances around the house for the bookcases. Unfortunately, many of the houses I work in don’t have any books in them, even the homes of educated people, and this is an observation that goes back to way before ebooks. It would be rather uncomfortable to be caught rooting around in someone’s ethingy, and ebooks just make the homes all the more barren. Pity.

  4. Richard Davies

    That’s such a sad observation.

  5. You can’t write notes in margins in E-books. As for the other points listed on behalf of real books, I have a memory from high school of my mother, flat on her back on the sofa with an injury, throwing the paperback of Saul Bellow’s Herzog across the room and screaming, “I am tired of holding that man’s hand!” The physicality of books, including their cover art and the feel of the paper, that enhances the reading experience and just can’t be replaced.

  6. The most important thing you can’t do with an e-book is keep it forever. How soon before the format it’s in is obsolete, or you switch e-readers and can’t be bothered to convert all the titles you’ve read to a new format? Own a real book and it can sit on a shelf to be picked up and read 100 years from now. E-books, on the other hand, are impermanent. They’re ultimately as useless after ten years as all that data you put on a 5″ floppy drive, or a Beta videotape, or an eight-track audiotape, or… well, you get the idea.


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