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GUEST COLUMN

Real books, not e-books, have places for authors to autograph

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - 10:03 am

If all you want to do is read a book straight through, from cover to cover, an e-book works just fine. All those captivating Robert Parker and Janet Evanovich mysteries, the Jodi Picoult adventures and Stephen King thrillers are perfect for digital format.

But heaven help you if you actually need to find something in an e-book. Recently, I purchased the digitized “Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” with the expectation of enjoying the author's rapier wit while soaking up the sun on a Bahamian beach. Not to be. First, there was no table of contents and, thus, no way to skip over “The Importance of Being Ernest” on the way to “Lady Windermere's Fan.”

Was that omission the fault of the editor of the collection, an error on the part of the person who digitized the text or the result of some sinister quirk in the e-book technology itself?

Had there been a table of contents, however, I still could not have navigated to the appropriate page because my e-book reader has no page numbers. It has percents. Amazon has promised an app to rectify that situation. Word on the street is that Nook already has page numbers, but my Kindle is sans app and I'm doomed to percents.

In truth, no aspect of navigating e-books is easy and some of it is confounding. First, just getting from one page to another takes some doing. It's difficult to break the old habit of turning pages with your fingers. Somehow, clicking forward just isn't the same thing.

Then there's highlighting. The Kindle automatically shows how many other readers have highlighted a particular passage. How does it know and why do I care about that? I need to know how to input my own highlights without working through a checklist of operations.

And next comes note-taking. While it is possible to type in a personal comment about some passage, it is time ill spent for me to try inputting anything of substance on a keyboard that's only 1 by 3 inches big.

Reading an e-book is an intensely private affair. Since e-book readers don't have book jackets, there is no good way to know what anybody else is reading. It could be porn. It could be Stephen Hawking's latest take on the state of the universe or a collection of David Brooks columns. Nobody will know.

Truth be told, many of us like to check out what strangers at the airport or in the coffee shop are reading. It says something to us about us if we are deep into some tome by David McCullough while that poor slob across the room is wrestling with the likes of a John Grisham or one of the Harry Potters.

Loaning an e-book to a friend is obviously problematic. Buying an e-book, however, is easy. Money is literally no object. The only time cost is a factor is on some distant credit card statement. A click to “buy” and the book is right there, right now. Never mind that that one click eliminates the fun of meandering through a book store or going through library stacks hunting for the S's or reading spines for Dewey Decimal codes.

Libraries are facing a different kind of problem with e-books. Traditionally, libraries purchase books, circulate them until they are too damaged to read and then purchase new copies. Digitized books, however, never wear out. They are forever. Facing a loss of sales, what's a publisher to do?

According to Jeff Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library, publishers are deciding how many times an e-book can be checked out before it is considered “used up” and needs to be re-ordered. In that sense, publishers are not selling e-books so much as they are selling a number of “reads” of an e-book.

So, my take is that e-books will continue to revolutionize the publishing industry. They are great for travel because the e-reader can hold hundreds of digitized books but weigh no more than one hefty paperback. A year's supply of reading can easily fit in a raincoat pocket. Plus, e-books are easy to read on the beach or in bed.

Still, it seems to me that my hardback and paperback books — the ones I have not passed on to friends, the library, local used book shops or Goodwill — are important. I like the ability to look them over — the chapter titles, the table of contents for gosh sakes, even the type face, the copyright history and any notes, bibliography or index at the back.

I like the freedom to write in the margins of my personal books. I like knowing I could skip ahead for a peek at the ending by simply turning to the last page. And the piece de resistance? Real books have places for authors to autograph.

Dana Wichern is a resident of Fort Wayne.