Some of us late adopters take a stand rather than lag behind. Until recently I took a stand against reading a book on a digital device, remaining steadfast and true to my favorite independent bookstore, Laguna Beach Books.
Several friends already had e-readers, but I held out. I compared widespread adoption of these devices to an asteroid impact sending shock waves toward bricks-and-mortar bookstores, indies and chains alike, the bookstores with aisles and shelves I have loved to browse since childhood. If they are gone, then where will I go?
An early love of books carried me along to a career in the book business starting in the mid-1970s, first as a bookseller, then as a publisher's rep, then as bookselling editor for PW. In that job, I reported on another asteroid: computer inventory control, which ushered in the rise of superstores and the decline of independents.
This then-and-now scenario flashed through my mind when, six months ago, my husband, the gadget guy, gave me a Nook for my birthday.
Now that I possessed a digital reading device, I decided to stop with the kicking and screaming already and set about figuring out how to use this thing, and I don't mean touch screen navigation. I mean devising a personal strategy for someone otherwise devoted to print books and the bookstores that display, recommend, and sell them.
First, I gingerly loaded a narrative nonfiction book I'd thought about reading when I heard the author speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last year. I hadn't bothered to buy it then and I doubt that I would have bought it now except for this new toy. So far, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa Milgrom remains in my Nook, half read. But that's not half bad. It waits for me, depending on my mood, rather like activating an iTunes selection on my iPod.
I also downloaded a backlist book that I'd missed along the way: Zadie Smith's White Teeth. I wouldn't have picked up the print copy of the novel at this late stage in its shelf life, but I added it to my waiting-room, arrived-too-early, stuck-in-a-line, reading-in-flight library, some of which I may never read, like collecting near-strangers as friends on Facebook.
I am beginning to see firsthand how an e-reader works for me, and how it is a mixed bag.
A few months ago I bought a bag full of books at my favorite indie bookstore, where just walking through the door makes me feel glad to be alive. I picked up the next book for our book group, Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, also a special order I had requested after reading a review of The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry. I also bought Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, then took my bag home and started with Freedom, settling in for a two-course feast of story and tactile satisfaction, holding a book in my hands. A pleasure rooted deep in childhood.
This is my mixed bag approach, and I like to think there is, universally, such room for old and new. New technology, however, sometimes brings unintended consequences. For example, I noted to my dismay while reading Still Life on my Nook during a recent flight that all us gadget users were asked to turn off our devices during the long final descent, while my husband kept on reading his paperback Richard Dawkins.
Recently while scanning the New York Times Book Review, another title caught my eye. I would have dismissed it since I didn't feel compelled enough by the review to call Laguna Beach Books and ask them to hold a copy or place a special order. Instead I found myself reacting the way I do about the announcement of certain films, thinking, "I'll wait for Net-flix."
But wait: I'm switching technologies. And that brings me back to early and late adopters, terms coined in 1962 by E.M. Rogers in his theory of diffusion of innovations. In this theory, sometimes a phenomenon known as "discontinuance" occurs. I'm not saying that some of us who decide to try e-readers will leave them to languish, but it could happen.
Consider my son-in-law, a computer programmer and voracious reader who writes code all day. At night, he says, he wants to relax... with a real book in his hands.
Allene Symons was PW's bookselling editor and a reviewer for the magazine from 1982 to 1988. She teaches communications and media studies at Santa Ana College in California and is writing a book about her father and Aldous Huxley's Tuesday night paranormal circle of friends.