Karen Heller: E-reader or hardcover? A passion dilemma

Posted: November 30, 2011

More than any other object, I love buying books. Some colleagues might argue otherwise, pointing to my desk drawer filled with heels. But I own more books than shoes - honest! - and holding a novel provides the sort of pleasure a pump never can. You do not join dear friends in a boot group. At least not that I'm aware of.

'Tis the season of the tablet. Cyber Monday spawned spam pushing every Nook and Kindle. I remain conflicted.

Our shelves are crashing from myriad volumes, many never to be opened again, while so many more wait to be read. When you consider space, the environment, and cost, the e-reader makes great sense.

But most Americans spend too much time in front of screens. Scientists haven't discerned the cumulative effect on eyes, brains, moods, and relationships, but how can this electronic absorption possibly be healthy?

I love the weight of a book, the covers, the sound they make when you flip the pages, the delight of dog-earing beloved scenes, the thrill when you're nearer the end than the beginning, how the weight shifts in your hands. When I buy a book, I help support a writer in one of the world's hardest, most solitary endeavors, where too few are rewarded with income that constitutes a living.

But massive accumulation of paper is wasteful, not only books, but also newspapers and magazines. I consider the iPad, another gorgeous Apple product. That is, until I read Donald Barlett and James Steele's "As Apple grew, American workers left behind" in The Inquirer, documenting the loss of thousands of American jobs to Chinese factories. Employees there labor under deplorable conditions for wretched hours at nominal pay. More than two dozen workers have committed suicide.

I phone Jim Steele, seeking advice. He tells me, "I have a Kindle. And I also have an iPad. The machine itself is marvelous. Both of them are." And all e-readers are made overseas. "I think a lot of people would pay a little more," Jim says, if the devices were produced under more humane conditions.

"Apple is part of a bigger issue in this country, the whole way we treat trade and globalization." The problem is systemic. We demand less of our trade partners than of domestic manufacturers. "It's not just the cheap labor. There are no regulations over there," he tells me. "But without these things, our houses would be bereft of everything. You can't just single out the iPad." We need to create jobs here and impose tougher trade sanctions.

So, yes, get an e-reader. The Kindle is better for books, Jim says, the iPad superior for newspapers, magazines, and travel. "If I really like a book, I feel honor-bound to buy a hardcover," Jim says. After all, he writes books, one to be published next summer. Another rule he has for books: "One goes in, one goes out." We should have practiced that axiom two shelves ago.

Then I speak with Michael Fox, owner of Joseph Fox Bookshop, the Center City independent bookstore that opened 60 (!) years ago. Encore and Borders have come and gone, and tiny Fox Books on Sansom Street is still here.

"We depend on people who love books," he says. "We really appreciate loyalty. We don't take things for granted."

Fox's success is simple yet rare. "We have good books, and we have great customer service. You can't go online and talk to people." The store's current sellers are biographies of Catherine the Great, of Vincent van Gogh, the latest Joan Didion.

"You need to support independent bookstores because, when there aren't any more good bookstores, there won't be any more good books," he says. "Amazon will dictate what's published, and little books of poetry and mid-range fiction" - quality works that aren't top sellers - "will disappear. In a country like this, which values freedom of speech as perhaps its defining characteristic, we need to publish a range of books."

Perhaps all I really want for Christmas are the Catherine the Great and Dickens biographies. In hardcover.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com,

or @kheller on Twitter.

Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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