I wasn’t itchin’ for an e-reader. I figured eventually, it would be inevitable. When the iPad was announced, I knew that at some point I would probably have one, but not yet–maybe next year.
Then I got one for Mother’s Day.
First of all, the iPad isn’t an e-reader. It includes an e-reader, but really it’s just some kind of odd cross between a laptop and an iPhone and I haven’t quite figured out how it fits into my life yet. So much of what I do on my laptop is writing–both online and off–and I don’t find the iPad conducive to much writing. I check my email on it, do a little web surfing on it, but mostly, I find and read books on it, truth be told.
Now that I’ve had it for six months, I wouldn’t be without it, of course, in spite of not being sure what to do with it besides read. (I trust I will come to find all of that out as it and I co-evolve.) But in spite of loving it, I seem to have some subconscious rules about e-books. Here I will attempt to make them conscious.
1. Only download free things.
I am still wary of spending money on e-books. Not because they aren’t worth money–the ones that are new, and have required writers’, agents’, editors’ and publishers’ resources to get into print–but because I know that the vendor can access and change my virtual library at will. I’m afraid of buying a book only to have it accidentally or on purpose deleted by powers beyond my control. Maybe this is a far-fetched fear and I will overcome it in another six months of iPad ownerhip. But for now, between my tight budget and my anxiety about who controls my library, I am only getting books from the Gutenberg Project and other free sources.
2. Only download things I already own in paper.
I had this rule to begin with, but I’ve blown it away, frankly. While I need paper back up for the most important books in my life–and as an English teacher and professional writer, they are legion–I began to compromise this rule as soon as the iBooks reader upgraded to allow me to write extensive notes on my e-books. While I am not ready to toss my paper copies just yet (see rule #1.), I have found myself more than willing to download all kinds of free books that are peripheral to my work and enjoy them somewhat casually.
Which brings me to what I really love about e-books. Given my rules, (well, rule, really, since I’ve already chucked the second one), I have been reading and enjoying all kinds of things I would never bother to read otherwise. As an English teacher, I know about any number of writers and books that I haven’t actually read. In the past, the less known or less enduring works of Edith Wharton or Charlotte Perkins Gilman (just to grab a couple of recent examples) would have been things I read about but didn’t know first-hand. They would have been hard to come by, via special orders or lucky finds in used bookstores. Now, I am flooded with out-of-print grab bags of the good, bad and funny in the realm of old literature in the public domain. At the push of a button I have downloaded reams of stuff English Literature had forgotten (much of it quite justifiably). For me, this is just way too much fun. I enjoy a good pulp romance of the late 1800’s as much or more than a contemporary one and meanwhile I get to expand my understanding of the writers whose greater work I’ve studied extensively.
As a historical fiction novelist, this is especially helpful, as I imagine my own characters walking into a bookstore or opening a magazine and reading these things from their own perspectives. It helps me get into the nineteenth century brain at a more personal level–what bad books did my characters enjoy? What pseudo-scientific theories tempted or tormented them? What political and social dreams were at their fingertips–the lesser ones that didn’t survive to adorn stamps or coins or be featured in historical documentaries?
As far as I’m concerned, I could never spend a penny on a new e-book and be happy for years with great reading material. And if it doesn’t get arbitrarily erased, all the better.