Came across an interesting statistic the other day: Digital books are outselling hardcovers these days.
This is one of those statistics that’s supposed to say something Important and Significant about the state of the world, like the claim that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, which is usually cited to illustrate the growing influence of Latinos on the U.S. economy but could as easily mean that nobody doesn’t like salsa.
The economy’s still kind of wobbly, digital books are cheaper than hardcover books, so, of course, they’re going to outsell hardcovers.
This doesn’t bother me. I’m basically a glass-half-full* kind of guy. I’m just glad people are reading. I’m especially glad people are still willing to pay money to read.
What’s more, digital books make it easier to buy books you ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead with. I can’t imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a bestseller if the women buying it couldn’t buy it online, anonymously.
However, there is a downside to the shift toward digital books: With a Kindle, it’s harder to show people how smart you think you are.
For a serious reader, a book is like a trophy case. The books you choose to display tell people what you’ve read, what you’re thinking about, how you look at the world.
When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is a bookshelf, or, absent that, a book. If you have books, there’s a good chance we’ll become good friends, especially if it turns out you’ve read a lot of the same books I have, especially if you have some literary or obscure book I love that most people haven’t heard of.
You can’t do that with a Kindle.
Your e-reader could be loaded with great books, but no one’s ever going to know it. You could open the bookshelf on your Kindle and leave it lying conspicuously on the coffee table when you go answer the door, but the screen will probably go dark before anyone notices.
Likewise, when you visit someone’s house, you can’t really start thumbing through someone’s Kindle. That would be like flipping through someone’s diary. It would be rude, and there’s a chance you’ll see things you can’t unsee (such as those Fifty Shades of Grey sequels).
Without a bookcase to help you, your only option is feeling the other person out, which can be tricky. If you walk into someone’s house, and there’s a bookshelf, you tend to pick up on the titles you recognize or like (Love in the Time of Cholera
, for example) and ignore the titles you don’t (such as Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People
, which is a real book and not something I just made up).
If you ask someone, “Read any good books lately?” you’re putting the other person on the spot. They’re under pressure now to come up with a book they think you might like. If they say Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, and you’re a dog person, or they try to play it safe and say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy, I don’t really have time to read,” well, what might have been a beautiful friendship may be dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean Kindles are a bad thing. I think they’re really useful. I love hearing about a book then having a copy seconds later. I love being able to download public-domain titles such as Walden or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn free of charge. Plus, unlike paper books, Kindles let you play Angry Birds and stream Netflix. (There is a hack for this, of course: Simply draw a little cartoon on the bottom corner of every page then flip the pages to see it move.)
I’m just saying new technologies bring new challenges, new challenges that, sooner or later, someone will write a digital book about.
*Technically, I’m a glass-is-completely-full kind of guy. The bottom half of the glass is full of water. The top half of the glass is full of air. So there.