The Print-Digital Divide, Part Two


Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” a book with heft. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Two friends walk into a bookstore. One clutches a digital reader to his chest and rhapsodizes that it’s changed the way he reads forever. His buddy ignores the techno-wizardry on display and heads straight for the shelves, breathing in the intoxicating combination of paper and ink, cracking the spine, and enjoying the heft of a printed book in his hands.

They might as well be carrying different banners – Romulan versus Federation, House Stark instead of House Lannister, Red Sox versus Yankees, Beatles or Rolling Stones, Ahab and the White Whale.

Sterile vs. Visceral

In Part One of this discussion of ebooks vs. print books, I mentioned I’d laughed when a digital advocate derided book-lovers for going on and on and on about the smell of books. I get the joke. The smell isn’t really what makes a book a book or what gives us joy from books. And when we print fans talk like that we have a tendency to sound as tweedy as Giles when he asks Willow to “wrest some information from that dreaded machine.” (Although he does make an excellent case that “if it’s to last, the getting of knowledge should be smelly.”)

Critic and essayist Joe Queenan counts himself among the book-sniffers. In a beautiful paean to the printed word, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” Queenan argues, “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

“My philosophy is simple,” he continues. “Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.”

I find Queenan’s essay eloquent, but I also can’t disagree with “The Medium Is the Message,” a recent article in Poets & Writers, which notes that “for the past five hundred years or so we’ve generally accepted a single version of what a book is, what it looks like, and how it is consumed.”

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, we read scrolls, painted on cave walls and told stories around the fire. Technology has always transformed human stories. Ebooks are just the latest blip on the continuum of our history as story-consumers.


This is where ebooks have print books beat hands-down. Virtually all of the digital publishers are undercutting the pricing of new hardcovers and eating into the market for new-release paperbacks, too.

All well and good, you may think. But the cost of books isn’t entirely the result of the real-world materials that go into creating them. It covers marketing, certainly, but also the salaries of editors and other staff at the publishing house who nurture manuscripts and authors alike as a book goes through months of edits and rewrites.

“We’re not talking about that anymore,” noted Samantha Dunn, one of the writers on the Digital Publishing panel at the WeHo Book Fair. “Those traditional hurdles to publishing: getting an agent to fall in love with you and your book. Finding an editor to work with.”

Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David and Dan Smetanka speak at the Digital Publishing panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

What she’s referencing is the price of quality. Editors push writers in ways writers can’t push themselves – editors are there to spot plot holes, poorly written sections, superficial characters, and they help writers clean up those problems to achieve more masterful prose.

With 211,000 self-published titles in 2011 (and just as many print books published through traditional means), how do you find books that are well-written, well-edited and worth your time?

Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times was very clear during that panel discussion that traditional critics won’t touch self-published books – there are too many and critics don’t have time. So who helps you sort the great from the dreck?

Now your mileage may vary, but my personal choice is to rely on traditional publishing houses, traditional marketing and the critical review process. My time is valuable. I don’t have hours to dedicate to poring over hundreds of thousands of links in an electronic database, trying to figure out what might have the potential to be decent. And when I do have a spare moment to read, I want to spend it on the good stuff, not mentally copyediting and grammar-checking sloppy prose. I do enough of that at work.


There are very cool things happening in ebooks. Because devices connect to the Internet, readers can follow links from the text, hear a song that a character is listening to in a story, play with interactive treasure maps, or engage in social reading by viewing the parts of a story that other readers have already highlighted.

In that P&W article, Di Blasi talks about the fact that Jaded Ibis “publishes each of its titles in four editions: as an e-book, a black-and-white paperback, a full-color paperback, and a special edition, which can range in form from a snow globe filled with the words of a novel to a book including a page of sealed mud to…clay tablets.”

She predicts gaming-based novels will supersede literary fiction, noting that her company already publishes an app-novel that looks different each time it loads.

“The probability of coming across a page illustrated in the same way you’ve seen before is close to one in 350 million,” she claims.

That’s great news for people who want those experiences – all of which sound fantastically fun and interactive. But, let’s be clear about our terms: these aren’t books, they’re book art and they’re book apps.

And there is a difference.

Neuroscientists are starting to explore the way the brain experiences reading. Early experiments show profound differences between deep and distracted reading. There’s no two ways about it, when you click a link and leave the story, when you allow technology to play a song rather than using your imagination to bring it to life, you’re engaged in distracted reading.

One study suggests that deep reading activates the brain more globally and involves the regions responsible for “movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.”

If you’re an avid book reader, you have no trouble recognizing this state of mind – it’s enchantment. You’re literally held in a trance by story because you’re so deeply engaged.

I think understanding these differences is important because it allows you to choose the kind of experience you want, or even need, to have. If you’re reading something that involves a lot of new vocabulary or industry jargon, it’s immensely helpful to be able to tap a word and be taken to a definition – the speed of ebooks enables this quickly, so you can incorporate what you’ve learned back into the flow of the paragraph.

If you’ve just bought the latest Nick Harkaway novel, you may prefer enchantment, as the author creates a vivid and fantastical world for you to get lost in.

More important, to my mind, than which medium you choose is the fact that you have choices.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Publisher Dan Smetanka made the point during the WeHo Book Fair that different people read for very different reasons, and they also have differing preferences for the form that reading takes. Smetanka said he believed all sorts of media should be available to meet everyone’s needs.

Marc Hirsh’s excellent essay, “The Critical Tyranny of ‘You’re Doing It Wrong,’” on NPR’s Monkey See blog, strikes a similar vein.

“The reason You’re Doing It Wrong is troublesome,” writes Hirsh, “lies in its tyrannical underpinning, dictating the way popular culture must be consumed, often for no reason beyond a belief that the writer is the only one enjoying an experience properly (or even at all)…There’s no acknowledgement that different consumers might have different needs and responses.”

“One important distinction,” Hirsh adds. “You’re Doing It Wrong is different from The Way You’re Doing It Has Consequences. When book-sniffers worry that the medium and experience they love is being threatened with extinction by the advent of e-readers, that’s perfectly valid.”

That’s pretty much where I net out. Even though my personal choice remains old-fashioned print books, I’m perfectly happy if you love your Kindle/iPad/Nook/Surface/Tricorder. The advent (and the advocates) of ebooks shouldn’t demand the extinction of print books. Ebooks and print books are not the same thing – the new version doesn’t preclude the existence of the old one, the way advances in microchips make old processers obsolete.

So let’s agree to get along and not knock anyone who’s enjoying the wonders of reading, no matter how they do it. There are bigger battles to focus our collective energy on – literacy and supporting libraries (whether electronic or brick) and fighting censorship – than what or how people are reading.

Related posts:

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Taking a Side? (Part One of this series)
Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

2 thoughts on “The Print-Digital Divide, Part Two

  1. I agree with you Vickie—I’m happy just to see people reading, no matter how they’re doing it! (Although the “interactive reading” you describe sounds very distracting indeed.)

    Thanks for the link to the Joe Queenan article. I loved it! But… he’s never read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”? Perish the thought!

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • Hi Rita,

      Thanks for the sweet comment!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the Joe Queenan piece. I’ve enjoyed his writing for many years, and this essay, in particular, hit home for me. It was hard to choose just a little bit to quote – I wanted to run it all!

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