Building a bookshelf

I’ve sort of become the library at my day job. My co-workers will ask me what I’m reading and if it’s any good, and any time I rave about a certain title, they go pick it up. Sometimes I even bring a copy in and loan it out. THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE – if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you know how much I adore this book – has made the rounds through about half the office.

The other morning while we were congregating in the kitchen over coffee, I passed TSIE along to my Creative Director. She takes book recommendations from me all the time. Looks forward to them even. But this was the first time I’d actually handed a book to her.

She took one look at it and said, “Oh, no thanks. I don’t want a real book.”

I paused for a second, confused. Then she pointed at her iPad and said, “I’ll buy it.”

The whole physical book vs digital book conversation has been happening for awhile, but the certainty with which my CD responded really got me thinking. She doesn’t want a real book. Ever. She wants to buy it digitally and that’s all. We started talking about “seeing” your collection.

I was all, “But I want to live in a house that has a library, with shelves full of books and ladders that I have to climb to reach them, and it will be gorgeous and beautiful and I’ll want to spend every minute in it.”

photo via Pinterest

To which my wonderful CD said, “Meh. Too much to keep clean. I just want to see my covers organized on my iPad.”

photo via Apple

Me: “But…but…You can’t hold them. Or feel their covers. Or see them as you walk through your house.”

Her: “But I can preview before I buy. And take a million with me at once, no matter where I’m traveling. And if it is two in the morning and I want to read something I don’t own, bam, I can get it.”

Me: “Yeah. I understand. I do. I just…I can’t.”

We went back to work and I thought about this long and hard afterward. Why is it that I own an iPad and still have not EVER purchased a digital book? I’ve previewed one – ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS – and liked what I read so much that I bought a physical copy. But it was 11 at night, so I had to wait until the next day after work, when I could go into an actual bookstore and buy the book. Even though I could have just hit that button on my iPad and had the whole thing the previous night.

So why? Just because I wanted it on my bookshelf? Is my only goal a tangible copy?

No, I don’t think that’s it. I do love having the physical copy of things, but I’ve been buying digital music for years. So I started thinking about what differs in digital music versus digital books, and I think I nailed what it is for me: method of consumption.

The consumption of digital music is not so different than it was in physical format. You put the CD in, or the record on, or hit play in iTunes, and in any format you just listen. That’s it. Once the song begins, there is no actual interaction with the media.

But with a book… Gosh, the entire process of reading is based on interaction. You are engaged with the story from the first moment you open the cover. You hold it in your hands. You feel the material, you turn the pages. It has a smell, that book. You carry it around and curl up with it in corners. Anywhere. Anytime. You marvel at the type-setting and page elements and cover design. You stick bookmarks in it and crease pages and leave fingermarks in the margins. THIS is what is missing for me.

Sure, I can “flip” pages in an e-reader, but it’s not quite the same. And I can’t feel the thickness of pages in my right hand slowly diminishing as they transfer into my left. It has no smell. Each book feels the the same. Not to mention it comes with a time-constraints – I can only read as long as I have battery life.

But clearly this doesn’t bother a lot of people. Digital sales for e-books have been growing at phenomenal rates. In 2010, the publishing industry in general saw an increase of around 3%, but when you break that down and look solely at digital, those sales grew almost 39%. But even with all this growth, e-books are still only making up a fraction of the overall sales ($1.62 billion out of a total $27.9 billion industry).*

I wonder if we will reach a time in the next several years (or decades) that digital book sales trump physical ones. After all, this is finally starting to happen in the music industry.**

What will this mean for physical book lovers like myself? I can’t help but picture old record stores, where die-hards scour racks for vinyls they wish to save, and think that that might be me. Only, I’ll be looking to pull physical books from the shelf. Or maybe it won’t matter. While digital reading is one experience, reading a physical book is another. They are their own two things, neither of which is replaceable.

This is my hope. Both experiences are great in their own ways, and I really hope both medias are around for the long-haul. Because while I might use an e-reader for manuscript-reading and critiques and the like, I really, really want my book-filled, ladder-climbing library. I mean, can’t a girl dream?

What about you? Which media do you prefer to read? Do you buy one or the other? Both? And above all, when it comes to building your bookshelf, what does your dream library look like?

* Stats from Publishers Weekly via BookStats’ figures
** Assumption from ZeroPaid via Strategy Analytics study

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