A book is a book is a book . . . ?

It’s not that I don’t think a lot about books and reading as it is. I’ve written in Viral Learning about how I thoroughly I think in print rather than images. I’ve been a nearly compulsive reader since I first learned to read, I’ve worked as a bookseller in an independent bookshop, and I’ve written books. Books are clearly a major part of my life.

But over the past few months, I’ve been thinking even more than usually about the nature of books. In one sense, I’m a romantic about books—I’ve always loved the worlds I can disappear into with a good book.  I like trying to notice—and invariably missing—that moment when the letters on the page transmogrify into the world of the story. More mundanely, I like a good binding, the feel of good paper, and the elegance of  book design and typography.

But I’m also a realist about books—they’re often heavy or awkward to hold, cheap bindings and spongy paper are all too common these days, and I worked enough years in that bookstore to know how dirty books are. They collect grime as fast as you dust them, and even brand-new, freshly printed books are covered in paper lint that collects on everything it touches.

Naturally, I’m interested in the onslaught of e-readers—the Kindle and the Nook and the many other new dedicated reading devices. Honestly, skeptical as I was, I wanted to like them—a good electronic reader would have the same sort of appeal as that magic writing-by-dictation machine I wanted for school essays when I was ten. But to say I’m not impressed would be an understatement—I hate that monochrome digital ink and that disconcerting short pause while each new page loads. The technology itself distracts me from the reading.

Unsurprisingly, I was an ebook Luddite and expected to remain one. Real books are . . . books: bound sheets of paper with real ink.

Then I bought my iPhone.

It would be handy, I thought, to have a few books on my phone for when I travel. When I’m working bout committee at fencing tournaments, it’s not uncommon for me to pack half a dozen books, just to make sure I have something I’ll be in the mood for when I feel like reading on the plane or before falling asleep at night. The Stanza and Kindle apps were free and there were tons of classics in the public domain to download, so why not give it a try, even if it wouldn’t be like reading real books?

Holy cow.

Reading on my iPhone is, in most cases, better than reading a “real” book. It took me a bit of fiddling to discover that to avoid eyestrain, I need to adjust the brightness as the ambient light changes. (In Stanza, you can do this within the app with just a vertical finger swipe, so it barely distracts you from the text.) But I can also choose a nice sepia-on-cream color scheme, ragged right text,  and any of more than a dozen typefaces (on Stanza, anyway) in several sizes.

With that kind of customization and the narrow width of the lines on the page, I can see the type more easily and read more quickly than I can from a paper book. I can hold the phone in one hand without needing to shift the weight around every so often, and I can even read in the dark without bothering anybody else (as long as I turn the brightness way down.)

Books on my iPhone take no space on my shelves or in a suitcase or tote, they remember where I left off reading, they let me make notes as I read, and they even let me share them with a few others. There’s also one benefit that would never  have occurred to me to think of: no paper cuts.

Naturally, there are—and will always be—books that are better on paper. Illustration-heavy works are problematic on a small screen; scrolling around an enlarged image isn’t the best way to see a map or chart or photograph. Design-heavy works where the page layout is important are likewise better on paper.

The vast majority of modern books—those composed of long stretches of text—are well-suited to digital existence, though. It turns out that it’s not the feel of the binding in the hand or the turning of the pages or the smell of the paper that gives a book its bookness—it’s the story.

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