Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Musings from a recent B&N visit: Print or digital?



This past week, I visited my local Barnes & Noble for the first time in, well, longer than I should probably admit.

I confess, I am a heavy ebook reader. Most of my literature consumption happens in digital form and quite honestly this is due to sheer convenience. Most weekdays, you’ll find me trekking across the city, weighed down with bags that are supposed to get me through the entire day. Having all of my books handy on my ereader works a lot better for me. So, while I wholeheartedly prefer the experience of a printed book, I know that I probably won’t be reading a title anytime soon unless it is in digital form.

But this time, I set out to B&N on a specific mission: to pick up some new Moleskine notebooks and grab a cookbook on my wishlist.

Marching down the aisles, I found my book instantly and gave it a quick look. As I flipped through, confirming that yes, I did want to purchase this book, I felt the weight of the book in my hands and found it to be rather clunky and too oversized for the book I had in mind. (My sorry excuse for a kitchen, a kitchenette, really, is about the size of a closet. Counter space leaves a lot to be desired, and a book this size would leave me hardly any room for prep at all.)

Ah, choice.

And then I found myself thinking, “I’ll just buy this as an ebook. That will work better for me.”

This was a big moment for me, because cookbooks had always been a hard line: something that I thought I would always, no matter what, purchase in printed form. How things change.

So, I put the book down and moved on to the fiction aisles just to see what was new. I admired covers of familiar books, finally able to see the glossy, glow-in-the-dark bookshelves on the cover of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Actually, I nearly purchased it even though I have the ebook, simply because I enjoyed it so much. But then I talked sense into myself and decided that wouldn’t have been the wisest use of my money. (And hey, maybe there is something to that “books as souvenirs” argument.) Don’t worry though, I’ll probably end up buying a few copies to give to friends as gifts when I start my holiday shopping.

I browsed for a really long time, happily finding several new books to add to my wishlist. I picked them up, flipped through, and the same thing happened: While I knew I’d probably enjoy the print version more, I concluded I would be more likely to read them if I bought them as ebooks. So there was that.

But here I was in a bookstore, and I became stubbornly determined to buy a book. I started hunting for books that I felt had to be read in printed form. Like magic, I found myself standing in front of Mark Danielewski’s books. I read House of Leaves a few years back, so I figured I could expect the colored type, marginalia, and crazy page-flipping that are synonymous with a Danielewski title. But then I realized I wasn’t really in the mood for that kind of experience. And I thought, “What am I doing? This is silly. No one does this.”

Moving on, I found myself standing in front of a book that seemed like it was written just for me. (Don’t you love when that happens?) I picked it up and sent a quick text to a friend with a photo, because I knew she would get it, and I knew she would agree. And she did. But, again, I knew if I wanted to read it anytime soon, I should probably get the ebook. So I bought it on my Nook. Right in the store. I replied back to my friend to tell her I got it in digital form. She replied, “Hey, whatever’s cheaper.”


Here I was, flipping through pages, scrutinizing the type, the margins, the weight of the book, and who knows what else to decide the “print or digital” question, and my friend, a casual reader, had boiled it down to one simple calculation—one that didn’t even enter my thought process. That’s when I realized I was really being silly and it was time for me to go.

So, I headed up to the register with my notebooks, finally admitting that I wasn’t going to get out of there with a book to read, and certainly not my original cookbook. “Just these?” the man at the register asked me. “Yep. Just these,” I replied, feeling extremely guilty that I inadvertently supported the “bookstore as showroom” theory.

Next, my favorite question: “Do you have our membership card? Would you like to join?” I always feel like I have to quantify my response. Not sure why. I told him I do most of my reading in ebook form, so I would have to decline. “Well, that’s a good reason!” he replied cheerily.

And then he asked me, “Would you like to purchase a book to donate to a child today?” pointing to boxes of $5 and $7 books waiting to be plucked. Wait. Real, physical books?

I probably too eagerly replied in the affirmative.


This entry was posted on December 3, 2012 by in Culture and tagged , , .

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