Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Three shortcomings of e-books

For dedicated readers, nothing compares to spending a quiet afternoon browsing in a bookstore.

Last week I found myself in the San Jose, Calif., airport with time on my hands.  I had my Kindle and planned to get a cup of tea and settle in to read.  Once inside security, however, I noticed a bookstore so I strolled over.  Immediately, I was enveloped in the quiet, the smell of bindings and paper, and the thousands of titles calling to me from the shelves.

This was the first time I’d been in a bookstore in a month or two.  A pilgrimage to Barnes and Noble for tea, coffee and hours of browsing used to be a weekly ritual for my wife and I.   She’d head for mysteries, I’d start with new releases.  We’d meet up somewhere in general fiction after I’d toured the history, social science and philosophy shelves–not to mention the marked downs.

In the two and a half years since I’ve had an e-reader, our visits to bookstores have become more infrequent–though nonetheless cherished.  So my visit to the airport bookstore was all the more welcome.  In fact, the visit was a time of reflection, one of those moments to recall things that are slowly fading from our lives.   The transition to e-books–advancing perforce–has been so swift, readers of all ages are likely going through some form of literary withdrawal or suffering premature pangs of nostalgia for the hours we’ve spent with books.  My time browsing in the airport bookstore got me thinking about some of the other simple pleasures of books, pleasures being lost to the digital serpent.  Two more examples:

Watching what others are reading After my relaxing time at the bookstore, it was time to board my plane.   In the days before e-books I loved to see what other people were reading and airports and airplanes were good places to do it.  I’ve struck up many conversations with strangers–at airports and elsewhere–by making a comment about the books they were reading.   Sometimes I would see a title then wonder why that person was reading that book.  Sound familiar?  Of course today the person across the aisle holding an e-reader could be reading Fifty Shades of Gray or Tom Sawyer and you’d never know.

Writing in the margins  Someone may have told you never to write in a book because it defaces the pages.  That may be true for library books, but writing in your own book can only make it more valuable to you, nonfiction books especially.  When you skim back at a book when you’re finished or even when you’re in the middle of it, your annotations, underlinings or highlighting will lead you to the things you wanted to remember.   Even the act of underlining helps you remember.

When you disagree with an author, the margin is the perfect place to scribble a rejoinder or set the record straight.  You can write questions that may help you understand what the author is driving at.  Yes, you can highlight and make notes in e-books, but the interface often makes it impossible for you to see your annotation and the passage it refers to at the same time.   And since annotations are recorded as footnotes, your comments don’t get equal billing with the text.   You can’t skim through an e-book on most readers and see your annotations in margins.

One of my grad school professors used to tell us that if you were not using at least three colors for highlighting or annotations yours was not a rigorous form of study.  Some e-reader software now permits you to highlight in colors, but it’s not the same thing.  And you can’t absently chew on the end of an e-book highlighter when you’re enraptured by a particular passage.

Next: More shortcomings- bookmarks and dog ears

Style notes

This blog conforms to the 2012 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook; however, in some previous entries I’ve incorrectly referred to electronic books and electronic readers as ebooks and ereaders, respectively.  I was in error.

The AP, not unlike some dictionary publishers, is not an early adopter of popular slang and jargon.  It takes a longer view.  For example, website only recently replaced Web site as the AP’s accepted way to refer to a location on the World Wide Web.

As this day’s post indicates, e-book and e-reader are the acceptable forms.

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