I want to like ebooks, but I just can’t

I’ve spent years trying to like ebooks. I really have. I’ve gone to great lengths to like them. I’ve tried a number of different ereaders, I’ve endlessly tinkered with and adjusted their settings, I’ve read every single pointless article on getting the most out of ebooks, and still, I don’t like them. This doesn’t mean I think they’re inferior or that they’re killing the printed book or that people who do like them are ridiculous and should feel bad about themselves — this is entirely a matter of personal taste, as I know because I am someone who does not like ebooks, and I am surrounded, for the most part, by people who do.

This doesn’t mean I don’t read them. When I’m traveling, I typically opt to take my Kobo with me, loaded with books, because I can’t be somewhere without a book, I tear through books very quickly, and it doesn’t make sense to bring a suitcase full of books — though when I went to Ireland in high school, that’s exactly what I did. For travel, ebooks make a substantial amount of sense, and I’d recommend them to most people in that setting.

But at home, I prefer dead tree books. Which on its face seems ludicrous. My house is so stuffed with books that I’m facing the need for a major cull to make room on my shelves, because my house cannot physically accommodate any more bookshelves. As it is, I have books stacked on top of books, and sometimes behind them, to keep them from spilling over onto the floor. In a few corners, I have the dreaded book piles, which teeter ominously and make it nearly impossible to quickly access their contents for fear of disrupting the entire thing for a book at the bottom.

The thing is, I actually need all those books. The vast majority of books in my collection are books that I plan to read again (or I wouldn’t have bought them) or need for specific references periodically; I might not go all the way back through a history book, but I definitely will pull it out to look up a fact or quote for an article I’m working on, or to resolve a heated argument in my living room. I don’t keep books around for ornamentation, or to look well-read and cultivated. I keep them around because I enjoy reading and because my work involves working with books — and, on occasion, actively needing to cite them for various purposes. Any sensible person facing this state of affairs would switch to ebooks.

But here’s the thing. I like the tactile experience of reading paper books. The turning of pages in the night, the cradling of covers. I have yet to find an ereader with a display I like — I certainly don’t like backlit displays, with their cold glare, but e-ink doesn’t thrill me either. I get frustrated with the speed of page turning, and I dislike the fact that sometimes ebooks skip forward when my hand shakes and they think I want to jump ahead ten pages.

I like the ability to quickly flip back, or forward. I like the ability to maintain multiple bookmarks and physically flip to them as needed. I like the consistency and reliability of indexing: ebooks may be indexed, but not necessarily, and they don’t always make it easy to get where you need to go. I like to know what page I am on, not what percentage I’ve reached, which some people mock me for, but so be it. I grew up with text I can touch, and for me, the experience of knowing what page I am is more helpful for orientation than a percentage estimate of how far along I am.

I don’t like to highlight, write in, or otherwise deface books, unlike other members of my acquaintance, so the highlighting features of ebooks aren’t particularly relevant to me, but I have heard others complain about their inconsistency and sometimes frustrating implementation. This does not sound enjoyable to me. If I were the sort of person who defaced books, the only technological barrier I should face would be running out of ink in my pen, not having to battle poorly designed software.

I also prefer to actually own my books. Once I buy a paper book, it is mine until I choose to sell it or give it away. Ebooks are more ephemeral. You have to hope that the company that controls your ereader doesn’t decide to randomly pull a book over rights problems, glitches, disputes with the publisher, and other issues. Maybe your book is withdrawn because of errors that need to be fixed, but maybe those errors were relevant to you for some reason. Maybe you actually wanted to keep your highlighting instead of having your book returned with no markup. The thought that someone could metaphorically walk into my house, pull a book from the shelves, and walk away without a word makes me uncomfortable.

And then, of course, there are the formatting issues. Some publishers are better than others about their ebook formatting, but things really go to hell and back when they deal with older texts that are simply scanned and converted — text recognition software is not always terribly accurate. Opening a book to discover wild typos, bizarre margins, punctuation problems, resizing issues, and a slew of other delights doesn’t make ebooks particularly attractive to me. Sure, that happens with paper books, too — in fact, it’s one reason people mock self-published books — but at least most major publishers seem to have it together on consistently formatting books in a legible and pleasing manner.

I want to like ebooks. I really do. But I think I’ve come to the reluctant and frustrated conclusion that they just aren’t my jam. Which is okay. Fortunately there are plenty of paper books in the world, and few texts are released in ebook only format at this point. For people who prefer ebooks, it’s great that their availability is expanding year by year, but for now, I’m perfectly happy reading my bedraggled copy of Rubyfruit Jungle in the corner.

Image: eBook, Jonas Tana, Flickr