Virtual Books–Virtual Sex: To Feel or Not to Feel?


Chances are many of us have seen more comparisons of eBooks to real books in the last five years than we really care to. The articles I have seen almost always have a strict focus on the technological aspects of the comparison. I love that, but in my mind, there is much more than bits and bytes in question. After reading several articles myself, I decided that is was due time that I contemplate things from my point of view. Maybe I’ll call it a cyborgish human kind of view? To do this, I should give those of you who do not know me personally a bit more information. I will choose to share those things which I feel play a larger part in how I feel about the future of books. In a nutshell: I am a technology junkie, and I really can’t find time to shoot up enough of the stuff; I am an archivist by profession (for those of you who don’t know what that is- you may need to look that up), and a writer by cloak of night; I totally dig history, culture, science, psychology, music, education, and the arts— yes I am a “recovered” nerd! I am a new breed of scholar- tattooed, pierced, and trendy, so I like to think I am a nerd on the cusp of pop culture (but maybe that’s just what I like to think!). Last, but definitely not least, I am a Certified Digital Information Manager. There it is- that’s a little about me… In this piece, I will attempt to explore the issues which I find important when it comes to the physical and electronic world of books. For the sake of explanation “book” will mean a book you can hold in your hands and physically flip through, and “eBook” means (well you all know what that means). Also- I do not own an eReader.

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The creative chatter of authors and writers filled the room. My eyes moved from person to person until I found the lips that were contributing to the death of the book. It was hard for me to hear a well known author, and a well known book connoisseur say they “no longer had space” at home for books. I stood in amazement for a minute. Maybe I was shocked!! Given that I am a technology junkie, one would think I should have been really happy to hear that at a writers conference. It was just the opposite. I suddenly felt a strange sadness seep into my body. Not here? I immediately birthed a rhetorical question, which I would later feel obligated to answer. “Is technology downsizing material culture?” Material culture is usually a term used by archaeologists and anthropologists. The term has been defined as follows: “Material Culture is to be interpreted in a wide sense and can be broadly defined as the relationship between people and things, irrespective of time and space. Since its focus is on the material quality of things, material culture concentrates on both a scientific analysis of artifacts and materials, and the role that the materiality of things plays in creating their social and cultural significance.”

Sadly, I think the answer to my once rhetorical question is a resounding yes. Much like email has killed the art of letter writing, the longer arm of technology is now penetrating our culture in ways that we will be unable to see for hundreds of years. When was the last time you saw a hand written note or letter? Can you remember? At the conference, publishers spoke of skipping printing books completely and moving straight to the electronic world. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article titled Defining ‘library’: in the digital age, libraries and publishers face a social reconstruction by Peter Brantley (September 2011). In this article the author says “what we can do with books is wrapped in a collective understanding that has been constructed through the work, and often the struggle, of women and men over many decades. It is because of that social understanding that I found it hard to tear the covers off a paperback; it is the reason why the burning of books is an act commemorated with plaques and ashamed solemnity.” And if you need more proof, Pediatrics Week published the findings of a survey in July of 2011. The survey finds that “nearly 80% of U.S. adults believe multicultural picture books are important for children, but one-third say they are hard to find.”

I have a couple of friends who use eReaders (maybe daily)- both say they use them for very specific reasons. One has a Nook and the other has a Kindle. My friend Gail actually brought her Kindle to me so that I could check it out for the purpose of this exploration. I felt that since usability is usually what is discussed in these comparisons, that would be a good place to start. Users often want to know what works and what doesn’t work. After that we will go deeper (not again)! There are two basic things I will take a closer look at for this mini analysis and they are usability and experience. There could have been so much more- but I didn’t want to write a book LoL! In the end, I pose some “why” and “what ifs” for your pondering.

USABILITY… Both of my friends seem content with the functionality and usability of their eReaders. What I found interesting is that both of them said that the newer version would be better or could do more. That technology rope keeps pulling us in, and keeps us jumpin’! Technology is always good, but can always be better. For example- just by chance, the Santa Fe New Mexican ran a feature on the “new” Kindle Fire this weekend in the Saturday paper. The headline was Kindle Fire could be hotter- Tablet boasts affordability, function but lacks the ‘wow’ factor. The problem is nobody will tell you exactly what that “wow” factor is. Maybe it is touch? I think it is just the unrelenting nag of the jones for technology. At a quick glance here are some of the specifications for the Kindle and the Nook. The Kindle has: 3G connectivity; under the “experimental” tab there is a web browser, you can play mp3s (cool), and use text to speak (maybe talking books?); you can change the font sizes; take and share notes; and check the preloaded Oxford dictionary if you need to. The Nook can probably do all of the things a Kindle can, but I didn’t get to look at one. The Nook is: tricky to navigate; has buttons that are awkward- especially after touch screen devices (there is that technology jones again); the eReader is easy for commuters. Both seem capable of providing a useful product to the end user.

EXPERIENCE… Now experience is what gets me, and that may be why this tech junkie has not made the move to an eReader. I think I would like to have an eReader just for the sake of having an eReader (ahhhh that jones), but I will never completely give up the book. My reasoning will follow from here on out. Well- first off there is nothing like the experience for me. David Ulin recently published an article in The Writer titled How we read in the digital age- the Lost Art of Reading (February 2011). In this article, Ulin says “awash in a world of instant information, we no longer seem to know where to place our gaze.” He also says “we are developing short attention spans that make it increasingly difficult to read those old-fashioned objects called books.” The best thing Ulin notes is that the one thing he “celebrates about reading is its interiority, the way it serves as a kind of inner, intimate form of communication between writer and reader.” This example is a bit of a stretch, but I am going to make a sexual comparison here. It is kind of like sex in the virtual world. Well that really isn’t sex at all now is it? We can use our minds to create or recreate an experience, but it is difficult if not impossible to create that which the five senses can capture. You can surely see virtual sex. Some may argue that you can employ touch in virtual sex, but it is not a real touch. Others may say you can feel in the virtual world, but are you really feeling? I mean really feeling from your core and connecting? Probably not. I will not even get into smell, but you get the picture. Experience is important.

Don’t you want to walk into a bookstore or a library with real people? What about going to a book signing and meeting people, while physically selecting a book you will read. What color is it? What is the content? How thick is the paper used to print the book? Is the paper soft, rigid, grainy, slightly colored? What information does the book jacket capture? Is there a photo? Does it have that new book smell or did you opt for a used book? All this says so much about the book you are about to enthrall yourself with. It speaks to the personal decision making process, and the decisions of that particular author. Now what does a digital book tell you? Anyone? Another thing- when it comes to music, I can find free digital music at the drop of a hat online. When I really like and respect the artist, I want a copy of the actual music disc. It would likely be the same for books if I had an eReader. I just purchased several really cool books at a writers conference. Where would I have had the authors autograph a digital book? Someone- anyone? Please don’t say a digital signature! What would that be worth?

In July of 2011, Home Media Magazine published an article titled We Need that Human Touch. The article says “the home entertainment industry, I’m afraid, has lost its human touch. The social experience of walking into a video rental store and maybe chatting with the clerk or other customers before picking out a movie to watch that night has been replaced by a few clicks of the computer mouse to update your Netflix queue. The rush to pick out a hot new movie the day it comes out on DVD or Blu-ray Disc, where you will likely rub elbows with other fans, has been replaced by complacency that further minimizes the human touch.” The importance of this has been studied for at least over 100 years if not more. In 1894, The American Journal of Psychology published a white paper titled Studies in the Psychology of Touch by F.B. Dresslar (Vol.VI, No.3). Dresslar was a Fellow in Psychology at Clark University. The most poignant comment made by the psych fellow was “when we stop thinking, and just feel, we find ourselves in a flood of sensations coming from the skin.” Need I say more?

“WHAT Ifs” AND “WHYs”

PRESERVATION… How are we preserving cultural connections? Who is thinking about digital preservation? How are you gonna get to that eBook again if the corporation changes ownership or file formats? If the book was in your bedroom on a bookcase could you get it with no problem? What if the most valuable eBook in the world was lost because it was only published in digital form? What do we do to preserve the intellectual content of a really important eBook that is born digital? How do we preserve the proprietary formats of electronic publishers? How do we migrate digital books we purchase to new devices if they are stored in the device memory? How do we insure the eBooks we buy are really ours if the intellectual content lives in cloud servers?

SECURITY… Is it safe to transmit credit card information so frequently through WiFi when we purchase eBooks? Are the server hosts offering a secure (https) transaction to avoid data compromise? Can the intellectual content of digital books be altered? Does that alter the historical record? Does the digitization of intellectual property pose greater issues in regard to copyright? What happens to all your digital data if servers go down or get hacked?

WHY USE eBOOKS… Allows more space at home and in your office. Allows us to develop our digital skills. Better accessibility for people with disabilities. Because it’s so swaggy and cool. They are easier to transport on travel. That’s the direction the world is moving in.

WHY BUY REAL BOOKS… The book is your book, not their book. To keep libraries alive. To keep living communities alive. To feel and connect in more meaningful ways. To develop your personal collection and say something about who you are. To aid in the preservation of history and material culture.

In conclusion, I absolutely love technology and can’t live without it. Maybe my favorite “virtual” spot would have a huge but intimate library filled with many books, sexy minds, and a huge desk. After thinking about it, I think it is good to have both eBooks and real books for various and distinct reasons. Maybe I’ll buy an eReader, but I will never forget to curl up by a real fire, with a real book, in the real world sometimes.

Explore posts in the same categories: Articles, Authors, Books, Conferences, Connection, Digital Issues, Digital Media, Edification, Preservation, Publications, Quotes, Random Ramble, Technology, Worthy Reads, Writers

4 Comments on “Virtual Books–Virtual Sex: To Feel or Not to Feel?”

  1. Laura Lou Says:

    Good post. And very true. Nothing beats a real book or a trip to the library.

  2. Gloria Irene Says:

    I agree. Seems like without the hard copy, there goes the history. How would you like to have your home warranty deed in electronic form only. Of course, I am in Quality Assurance and very much from the old school. I would never even open an electronic book to read, how boring. Holding the book is a very important part of reading.


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