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July-August 2017

In defence of e-readers

It's okay to go digital, writes tech columnist Tyler Hellard

Tyler Hellard@poploser

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 10.49.39 AMConfession: The first thing I do when I start reading a book is crack the spine. It’s satisfying. I’ve never understood people who keep their books in pristine condition. They are meant to be lived in—dog-eared and coffee stained and marked up all to hell. The pages should be wrinkled from that time you dropped it into the tub and have a little blood on them from idly picking at a mosquito bite while you were reading. Reading is messy, and books should reflect that.

Second confession: I don’t crack as many spines as I used to because a lot of my reading happens on my Kindle and my phone. I fought the war on digital reading for a long time, a position I defended in the July/August 2015 issue of This. It was a principled stand I made because I wanted my kids to see me enjoying books. Unfortunately, having kids means I need to take my reading time when I can get it. I used to spend each evening quietly sitting with a book or magazine. Now I slide in and out of reading a few minutes at a time, on the bus, while waiting for the four-year-old to put his clothes on and, yes, when I’m in the bathroom (don’t even pretend you don’t use your phone on the toilet). This kind of reading is possible because every book and article is always in my pocket or backpack. It’s not the ideal way to read, but it’s what my life allows right now and there is no principle so strong that it isn’t thoroughly trumped by convenience.

I don’t think my approach is unique. I’m a hybrid. There’s a lot of stuff in the world to read and it’s easier to be agnostic about how I go about it. My nightstand still has a pile of unread books that grows and shrinks yet never disappears, but I carry my Kindle everywhere. A handful of magazines and newspapers get jammed into my mailbox every week, but I’m also a power user on apps such as Instapaper, Texture, and Zinio. I’m a staunch library supporter and even steward a “Little Free Library” in front of my home, but I’m happy to see my monthly donation to the Calgary Public Library going to increasing digital holdings and diversifying access to those materials.

Globally, book sales are up in every category but one: e-books. By every measure in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., people are buying more physical books and fewer e-books. (Oddly it’s digital sales of those paper books carrying most of the increase. We want the books, but we’re tired of going into bookstores, I guess.) People try to make sense of that in a few ways. Some declare digital reading a complete failure; others just yell, “See! I told you!” into the void (or on Twitter). This is as stupid as declaring that books were dead back when e-books starting eating into the market. It’s a bad opinion perpetuated by people who cling to feelings of nostalgia and familiarity with their hardcovers and paperbacks.

I don’t want to point fingers, but the person who edits this magazine called me a “traitor” when I mentioned that I love my Kindle, and she’s not the first. A surprising number of people I know want to take sides in this fight—I did once too, even though I was also happy to switch sides a few times (it’s possible I actually am a traitor)—but there’s no real fight to be had. Or at least it’s not the fight we thought it was. We live in a world where everything and everyone is competing for your attention. When Netflix and Facebook consider each other competitors because the thing they want most is every second of your time, does taking a bold stand against reading Fahrenheit 451 on a screen make any kind of sense?

If you love to read, stop caring about how you and especially other people do it. Just embrace it all—it’s messy, and that’s good. As long as we aren’t watching TV shows with B-list celebrities baking cakes, things are probably fine.

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