August 15, 2011

The Argument for Paper: What e-Readers Actually Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:02 pm

This  past weekend, my partner and I spent two whole days trimming our trees, cutting down dead parts of trees, chopping up the bits of trees, loading the bits of trees into the “yard waste” dumpster in our alley and generally irritating every sparrow, cardinal and pigeon within a two block radius.  This was hard for me.  I have a tree fetish.  Ok, it’s actually grown into a wood fetish that borders on hoarding.  Need a bit of plywood or oddly shaped trim?  It’s probably in my garage, salvaged from the greater metropolitan area’s alleyways.

Wasting wood is akin to wasting food for me.  What can I say?  I have issues.

You might think that I’d have a hard time reconciling my tree/wood obsession with my career selling things made out of paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  Anyone familiar with my particular brand of neuroses knows that I’ve spent lots of time agonizing over this very thing.  In fact, when e-readers were introduced I was actually surprised that I wasn’t excited.  I mean, it’s the marriage of everything Jarek- geeky technology mixed with geekier reading material AND I don’t have to carry heavy things AND I can have instant gratification of needs.  What’s not to love?

Turns out, quite a bit.

Since I’m a fan of lists, here’s my list of why I don’t particularly like e-readers (and why you shouldn’t either):

1. You know that creepy feeling you get when you’ve held your cell phone to your ear for a really long conversation?  The one that says, “I just gave myself ear cancer by holding something toxic next to it”?  Yeah, it’s there in an e-reader too, only now it’s lap cancer.  Even if the reader is built to give you a “real book feel” and you can rub the screen to simulate turning the page, the fact is, that you’re still holding a glorified cell phone.

2.  Ooh look, glitter…  I tried to read a book I was excited about on the Sony e-reader that a publisher gave to my partner for the purpose of reading advance reading copies.  We loaded the e-book onto the reader, I took it to bed and settled in like I normally do.  I read approximately 3 pages and gave up because I couldn’t stop relating to it like I relate to my laptop and cellphone, that is as a tool to gobble small bits of information quickly and move on.  When I tried to get absorbed in the story I found myself drifting off to check my phone.  I never do that with a real book.

3.  This might be the biggest reason of all to abandon the notion of e-reading.  It’s the thing I couldn’t articulate at first.  The thing that trumps all tree hugging/wood hoarding neurosis.  Trashing the environment.  The Fall 2010 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review is dedicated to the “Price of Paperless.”  Let me just quote an excerpt for you:

…the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader – factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuel along the manufacturing process – is roughly the same as fifty books.

…the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced.  That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books – not used or rare editions, 250 million new books – each year just to come out footprint-neutral.  Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, text-books, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold.  Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

(Bold emphasis mine)

I’m not going to preach about the evils of technology.  I design websites and am surgically attached to my smartphone.  I AM going to preach about being reasonable.

Yes, my bookstore sells e-books.  Yes, I think iPads are pretty amazing.  Yes, I’ll continue to encourage people to buy books in any format so as to keep reading alive.  Yes, I recognize the irony of blogging online about my resistance to e-readers.

But here’s the thing.  My paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five will still work in twenty years, and I can give it to a friend or sell it back to my bookstore to sell used, turn it into art.  I can recycle it over and over and over.  It will pick up the smells and creases from a life well lived and keep working, perhaps better for the journey.  When its life is over, it will decompose and (maybe) be part of the soil that grows another tree, which might be used to make another book.  Its future is bright.

My e-version of that book I was excited about?  It doesn’t exist in tangible form.  It won’t pick up the history of a life with me because it will be lost in the ether. A bit of information that was once accessible on a reader that will be unusable soon.  The e-reader will still exist, too, only it will probably be at the bottom of a toxic pile of other broken small appliances.  Someone that nobody takes care of will dig through that pile of toxicity to harvest the precious metals to resell.  They will be sick.  They will have no choice. We will ignore them.

I’d rather be part of a brighter future.  So, yes.  I’ve reconciled my love of trees and the birds, nests insects and all other manner of nature and history that goes with them with using them to write down the stories I love.  Today I feel pretty good about my career as a bookseller.



  1. Beautiful!

    Comment by Robin Tidwell — August 15, 2011 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  2. Informative and, as always, concise and well written. Thanks, Jarek.

    Comment by Bridget Bufford — August 15, 2011 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  3. The chicness of my e-reader faded quickly as a tried snuggling into bed with it. Smells too techie… And I love the ear cancer comment. I have the same creeped out feeling. Trees into paper feels good.

    Comment by Lisa Hautly — August 15, 2011 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  4. As the co-conspirator in the partial deforestation of our tiny urban backyard, I want to add that all that “yard waste” we removed, will be turned into mulch by the City of St. Louis and made available to us FOR FREE to reuse on our garden beds. Cool! The closet with the old laptops, cell phones and assorted digital gadgets–I can pay to have recycled or I can dump toxic-ly. They are not re-giftable as my books are, either.

    Comment by kriskleindienst — August 15, 2011 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  5. My books never say, “battery low”, or become corrupted, well maybe if it’s a history book in Texas, but please in 100 years will you be able to say I have the first edition of, …. on my e-reader, want to buy it?

    Comment by paolopresta — August 15, 2011 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

  6. Um, get a nice leather cover for your Nook and go back to bed.
    Bleached-paper books do not decompose without killing, even if they happen to somehow land in a forest instead of a landfill.
    Glad to see you’re expanding your writing into the fantasy genre.

    Comment by peter — August 29, 2011 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  7. An interesting and revealing article, thanks for posting! I would like to counter your argument a little though.

    One point I’d like to make is that it doesn’t need to be an either/or situation. You can be a responsible e-reader owner and still also love and appreciate paper books. Your point about how much waste goes into the production of the e-reader is revealing and I do agree it’s not great that everything electronic becomes obsolete in a year or two. But we can be responsible e-reader owners: keep it for more than two years unless it breaks and try to use it frequently enough to justify owning it – now we know that means read at least 50 books on the thing!

    There are some trade-offs that I think make it worth it (for me at least). I am a student and I live in Brooklyn. Traveling around the NYC area usually means at least a 15-45 min. train ride for me. If I am heading out of my apart it’s so much easier to grab a light-weight e-reader loaded with several books I need to read for school and multi-task by getting some work done on the subway without having to schlep around giant textbooks. My only problem is that not all my textbooks are available as e-books yet!

    The other point I’d like to make here is that while I love paper books and find them valuable objects to own (I used to be a librarian and I am a photographer so obviously e-readers or even iPads will never be adequate substitutes for monograph artist books etc.), let’s not kid ourselves about their longevity, durability and use. I have a librarian-friend who told me that the average paperback book manufactured today only lasts for about 20 circulations. I found this number kind of shocking. And while it’s true that people like you and I would always pass a book along to a friend, library or even someone who could creatively re-invent the books into artwork or other objects the reality is that many people do not. People throw away books all the time and much of the time don’t even bother to recycle them or bring them to a library, goodwill or anything like that. A sad reality. So in a world of complete disposablity perhaps the e-reader is a good choice for those who would otherwise not be responsible book-owners and recycle or reuse their paper books.

    Comment by heliosong — August 29, 2011 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  8. I love the e-reader. You’re entitled to your opinion though. My opinion is that you’re a moron.

    Comment by Awesome Mcsaucerson — September 2, 2011 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  9. Very nice post, I found it to be very interesting. I have bookmarked your page as I will show it to my friend. Good job! thx

    Comment by Johnny C. — October 14, 2011 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

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