In yesterday’s article, Smelling of Pencils, the comments discussion turned — as it always does — away from the main core of the argument of the article and into another realm. We shared a brief discussion about books and that conversation led me back into wondering about books and publishing and what makes up the essence of a book: The Author, the Reader, the Publisher? The book itself? The process of it all? What is a book nowadays anyway? 

I like to hold a book in my hands. I like to feel its weight. I like owning a book and not renting the rights to a book. I like a book made of paper so I can write my counter-thoughts right next to what I’m reading on the page. I dog-ear pages. I fold pages into other pages. A book is not for cherishing or shelf-sitting. A book’s binding is built to be broken. A book is a tool used to crank up your mind and its capability for imagining: Yesterday, I said:

I urge my students to buy their books and never sell them. “Your books are your friends,” I tell them, “and you don’t sell your friends.” If they complain they cannot afford to buy their books, then I tell them, “You can’t afford to take this class, because the only way you’ll pass this class is by making your books your best friends so you can share secrets and learn from each other and get through the ideas this class requires you to digest and dissect.”

Today, I wonder if my notion of books as friends is too quaint in our current fast-moving and ethereal world of disconnected thoughts and itinerant people? Can a book be a PDF file? Can a PDF file claiming to be a book be a book if you only read it on your computer? Is a PDF file a book only if you print out the PDF file on paper?

Does a book demand a “third editorial eye” beyond the author to make it a book? Does a book suggest a process of thought that begins with the author and is filtered through other active minds before touching the eye of the reader end user? Is it inappropriate for me to call a reader an “end user” — or is that what all readers are now in our virtual world: The end of the line in the call of thought-sharing? Is an electronic book a book? If an e-book is a book, why don’t we just call it a “book” instead of qualifying an e-book as a book when we know an e-book isn’t any sort of book at all?

Is the idea of the book dead? Is a book really just another word for “discussion” in our current realm of thinking? Have blogs and their comments areas become books written in real time to be shared forever with eternity as timepieces marking instant moments in cultural values and believing in each other? Can email ever replace the handwritten letter? We know email isn’t a letter because we call it “email” and not a letter.

When you buy a book, are you buying the words and the wonderings of the author or are you only paying for the convenience of packaging, printing, binding and distribution costs? If the essence of a book is only an enticing and unique ordering of words, should you be paying for what you’re reading here right now?


  1. David,
    Thank you for this fascinating topic! And thank you again for spoiling my packing…I was halfway through when I started reading your post this morning –
    Now I am done for the day! 😀
    Your post reminds of a news article I read last August –
    in the Christian Science Monitor
    this from The New York Times.
    I was dumbstruck. It scared me. I might sound old fashioned, foolish, emotional, and passionate in this digital age – but I don’t care.
    There will never be a substitute of a paper made book for me. Ever.
    Nothing on earth could make me bunk my classes or skip a day of work except a good book.
    Books are my shelter, my friend, my companion. It slows me down, challenges my thought process and finally helps me to grow.
    I savor the taste of a book like wine.
    If the concept of a paper made book becomes obsolete in near future, it will surely cripple the power of our imagination.
    Is it the ultimate consequence of the digital age? Producing some techno savvy robots?

  2. Hi Katha —
    I appreciate your passion for books, but I am also confused by it — you didn’t purchase your books for school. You borrowed them and gave them back. All that referenced learning is no longer with you for future reference!
    Publishing books is expensive. Paper is not an unlimited quantity while PDF files are limitless in size and content. If you’re a new publisher looking forward — it makes more economic sense to “go all digital” for permanence than to revert back to temporary paper.
    Microfiche, as I knew it for research and study, is essentially dead. It has been replaced by CD-ROMS and the internet database.
    You no longer need to look for the fiche or find an open reader machine.
    You just logo on to the internet now and search, look, print and go along your way. Touching the past between your fingers is no longer a research reality and that, to me anyway, is a sad loss or reckoning with who we are and where we came from.
    It is also sad that so many libraries filled with books are being replaced with student lounges. Lazy minds make inferior bodies.

  3. I don’t think paper will ever go out of style.
    I don’t see reading an e-book at the beach or on the bus ever really catching on.
    Plus, you can’t curl up with a good e-book like you can with the low-tech analog paper versions.

  4. David,
    I just availed the opportunity provided by my university.
    I bought some of those I liked.
    Loving books doesn’t mean owning those – do you/can you own everything you love?
    I do understand your point though. May be a day will come when the library I will use will be filled with e-books, I will be quite comfortable using it – but that will be a mere acceptance of the obvious change – not a substitute. I will still miss those paper books.
    Will it be ever possible to snuggle under a blanket with a cup of coffee with an e-book instead of a paper made one?
    I doubt.

  5. Having read my earlier comment, there’s a “but.”
    For research, I’d rather use the computer at my desk because it is so much more efficient. For the work I do, there are “flags” and graphical listings that quickly show the history of cases quickly and efficiently.
    In the past, to get the same information might involved flipping through pages and pages of a “Shepard’s Citations in Print.” Of course, that service is also available online.
    From Lexis-Nexis:

    Shepard’s is still available in the familiar print format with softbound cumulative supplements to keep you up-to-date. For many legal professionals first trained to Shepardize® in print, this format is still a source of comfort and confidence.

    Now, you can get your case info sent wirelessly to you to keep up with important changes:
    From West:

    That’s why West offers KeyCite Alert – to monitor breaking legal developments that matter most to you. KeyCite Alert is an exclusive monitoring service that automatically tracks cases, statutes, patents, administrative decisions, regulations and law reviews and keeps you informed of up-to-the-minute changes that may impact the legal materals you’re relying on.
    You can receive KeyCite Alert results whenever and wherever you want. KeyCite can deliver the results to a wireless device, an e-mail address, a printer, or a fax machine.

    If I had to get a case from so far flung jurisdiction, I might have to drive to a law school’s library and search through their stacks.
    Libraries are great for literature, but for certain research tasks, nothing beats the computer.

  6. Hi Katha —
    I am just surprised the books that helped form your educational mind and that prepared you so well for your PhD work are not on your permanent bookshelf. I find that disconnect between learning and longevity troublesome.
    I don’t think you should own what you love but you should own what gave you the building blocks for your higher success.

  7. Chris —
    Yes, information wants to be instant and searchable. It’s hard to find what you remember in a paper book as quickly as you can find it again in an electronic form. A good index for a book is vital but most indexes are just plain awful. Using Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” is where all paper books will one day end up living.
    With electronic paper we’ll have “libraries” of our own that we’ll call up from the web and we’ll unfold our electronic paper from our pockets and login and have any book we wish sent to our waiting, sweaty palms where we can read everything and nothing we wish between specs of sand and sips of tequila!

  8. Electronic paper looks pretty nice. It might beat out paper at the beach or poolside, if it’s waterproof and Wi-Fi enabled!

  9. David, I think learning can’t be confined by possession only.
    If I had to possess all those books/people those I read/met and learned from I could be the owner of the biggest mobile library/procession/parade of the world.
    Learning is a journey, not a destination, an experience – as a whole.
    I ended up buying some reference materials before buying the text books because I liked those reference materials better than the text books.
    Some course text books can’t build your blocks for higher success only – it’s the entire process throughout your life!

  10. Books will always win out for me – I can read them in the bath, in the car, on top of a mountain, deep in the valley and on the beach.
    They have a solid real sense as opposed to the transient nature of a computer screen.
    I have books which my grandparents bought and read, as well as some older – when they were read by sunlight, candlelight and gaslight. I can feel their presence when I read them. An electronic book – or computer screen will never ever give me that.

  11. Electronic paper does seem to have a lot of interesting promise, Chris!
    Here’s a question for you: You want to buy a book. The paper version is $14.00 and will be delivered in a week; the e-Book version of the same book is the same price and is available for download right now.
    You may only purchase one version of the book. Which “book” do you choose and why?

  12. Hi Nicola —
    You’re right that when you hold a book in your hand you hold the history of thouught between your fingers.
    E-Whatever has a long way to go to provide the same experience and it will likely never be able to match that depth of belonging because its very nature is to be transient and transparent.

  13. David asked
    “You may only purchase one version of the book. Which “book” do you choose and why?”
    If it is a book I want to keep – I would buy it – if I just wanted to read could I have a third option – to try and find one second hand from friends? This is the green / ecological side of me coming out here.

  14. Hi David,
    I’d be tempted to take the e-book because I’m usually impatient and want to start reading right away.
    This assumes that the e-book would be available on lightweight “electronic paper.” I wouldn’t want to lug a laptop or find a computer to be able to read the e-book.
    My decision would also depend if I could store a copy of the e-book for future reference. If I was limited in how many times I might be able to read an e-book, I’d wait for the paper copy. If there was some strange copyright digital rights system that would only let me read in on certain machines — for example, if I download at work, I’d have to read the e-book at work — I’d probably skip the digital version.
    Right now, I’d be patient and order the paper version since e-books are too cumbersome right now.

  15. So, Nicola, are there books you want to keep and books youi don’t care about keeping?
    Where do you draw the line between what you keep and what you allow to leave you?
    You can’t add a third option! 😀 My students do that to me all the time!
    I’m not interested in reading a book unless I can own it after I’m doing reading it. The experience has become a part of me and I would never give that back for anything.

  16. Hi Chris!
    1. I, too, am impatient!
    2. No electronic paper is available. This is the “e-book” is in PDF form we’ve all come to hate.
    3. You have to use a computer to read your PDF unless you print it out.
    4. Yes, you can store your PDF for future reference. There’s no timebomb. WE HATE DRM so you’re safe there.
    5. I, too, would likely wait for the paper copy.

  17. Although I enjoy and have a preference for books where I can physically turn the pages, the content of the book is more important to me. I would rather read a well written e-book than a poorly written paperback.
    Sometimes if I really like a book I have to have more than one copy so I can mark up one and still be able to re-read the other without being distracted by my own comments.
    Also, a good read can be made up of a great number of things: paper, plastic, cardboard, foam, parchment, tree bark, banana leaves, etc. They can even be scrolls.

  18. A S —
    Isn’t the issue physical vs. virtual? The examples you provide are all “real” while the PDF files are more fleeting by their definition.
    Would you pay the same price for a PDF book over a “real” book?

  19. “So, Nicola, are there books you want to keep and books youi don’t care about keeping?
    Where do you draw the line between what you keep and what you allow to leave you? ”
    Yes there have been – some books never beome part of me – and those I pass on to others to whom they may be of more use.
    The line I guess is how relevant they are to me – how much they become part of me. These tend to be books that “someone” thinks I should read – and that I either miss the point entirely i.e they are simply not relevent, or am bored rigid by ie NOT my thing.
    When I had my children I got through masses of “female fiction” aga sagas – which were light entertainment for me at feeding time in the night , but hold no lasting relevence. Any book with a message for me gets kept so I can return again.

  20. Hi David,
    I was having fun with the GNU Image Manipulation Program and put three flares in the photo. 🙂
    You can update my picture on the guest author’s page since the manipulated version is more interesting than the old one.

  21. Would I pay the same price for a PDF book over a “real” book? Yes, if the book was particularly long or if I needed to read something by a certain time and the book was back ordered.
    PDF files can be printed and if you really want to you can bind it into a book or stick it in a 3 ring binder. If the book is particularly long/ heavy, you don’t have to carry the entire book around.
    As for books completely read on the computer (not to be printed), that is fine too but the cost to the consumer should be significantly less.
    If in the future they are offered only on line, it does not mean I would no longer wish to read.
    However, to support those that print tangible books, without extenuating circumstances, I would pick the book whose pages can be turned.

  22. In a way it’s almost like buying music on itunes versus buying the cd.
    I realized at a certain point that all of the cds I bought were ultimately just ripped onto my ipod and then just sat on the shelf and collected dust.
    Certain books I want to keep as long as I am around : my first edition copy of Kitchen and my very old copy of “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” I got as a gift – also a first printing, pre-1950. A digital copy of Dale Carnegie’s signature isn’t quite the same as the one he put down with real ink with a real pen – as I have here.
    No computer file will compete with having the 175th issue of The Paris Review (which I have been reading lately to help me get that passion back into my writing – they seem to be very passionate about their writing!)
    Other books I don’t necessarily need to own in order to enjoy. I’m only going to read “An Inconvenient Truth” once because I don’t need to be reminded over and over again that the world is going somewhere very hot in a handbasket.

  23. Interesting argument, Gordon!
    At least with your CDs you can import them into iTunes for safekeeping or copying or further manipulation.
    I wish I had a way to easily “electronicize” all four thousand of the books I have everywhere. I don’t have walls. I have bookshelves! I have them all indexed in EndNote, but I wish I had a way to search them all instantly on my own private interweb database. I could then call up any page with an image of that page for printing or viewing.
    Don’t some publishers offer both versions of a book for purchase — the “hardcopy” and the “electronic” version for the same price?

  24. Before I moved out to Canada, Jeff told me he was going to get me reading Harry Potter, because I said that I hated him, and Jeff wanted to change my mind about him.
    So, when I moved out I dutifully read all the books, and loved them. Since then, I’ve read them over and over again, to the extent that in one of them, quite a few pages are loose.Now I get a lot of crap from Jeff about how the book doesn’t look good anymore with all the pages falling out.
    What’s the point of buying a book if you just want it to look good? I have quite a few books to do with the paranormal, and Spiritualism … ALL of them are well worn. I have pages turned over at the corners (another Jeff pet peeve) I leave them open at certain pages and will start reading another book when I’m halfway through a different one. I have 2 on my bedside table that I’m reading. I about halfway through both.
    My books are well worn, because they make me want to read their contents. My books are well worn because they’ve been lovingly thumbed through time and time again. Any book that can make me do that is worth every cent I spent on them!

  25. Love it, Dawn!
    I’m with you all the way!
    Books are meant to be read and RE-read just as you so rightly suggest.
    You can’t dog-ear an electronic file. You can’t easily carry around three open e-books and mark them up and page backwards to find that special passage you love.
    There is great power in The Real and we give up that individual power in the virtual world because the mass of society demands equal access.

  26. I notice that you are in favor of writing in books and such and am curious as to your take on “collectable first editions”.

  27. My take on “collectible first editions” is that they should be written in and dog-eared and shorn of their bindings. I have a first edition Tolstoy novel here published in 1899 that I have mauled.

  28. That makes sense. I never really understood why some people would pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for books they had to keep in special air tight / light tight areas.

  29. I agree, A S! I paid $5 for my Tolstoy book 20 years ago in a small used books store in Washington, D.C. They had no idea what they had.
    In a future article I will discuss the mentality that allows for the sort of “first edition” madness you identified.

  30. On a totally different note, am I the only person who likes to smell books – particularly old ones? You can tell so much about the history of a book based on its smell – the kind of paper used, how it was stored, etc.
    Ah, the beauty of used book stores and garage sales.

  31. We are living in an increasingly technological world and I embrace most of these advances.
    With one exception …
    Nothing will ever replace that stack of books on my bedside table, the one hidden in the bathroom cabinet and several others scattered throughout the house.
    I need a physical object in my hand, something I can then keep and come back to later if I want to.
    Like you I could never bring myself to get rid of any books – the mere thought is sacriligious. Although my increasingly large collection is starting to annoy my partner 😉

  32. Hey Mike —
    Right on!
    The longer you live the more books you should have. We need to make room for our books in our lives because, like rings inside ancient trees, those books mark us with their reborn rings and their innate temperature and bark and sap and leaves.
    We live history and the future in the same moment through the pages of a book. There is no “now” when you read a book there is only what was or what could be.

  33. Kindle Makes Authors Publishers!

    Kindle is Amazon’s new amazing e-book reader and it is a tremendous boon to authors everywhere because we can now, through Amazon’s network, directly publish our work for purchase. You need to buy a Kindle — RIGHT NOW! — if

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