Fear of Flying

January 8, 2014

Flying to Philly is the only thing I don’t look forward to when it comes to Midwinter. Flying is not pleasant business. The indignity of airport screening, waiting to board an overcrowded plane, jamming my carryon into the overstuffed bins. The sole redeeming feature of air travel is my 15 minutes of quiet reading because no one is on their cellphone texting, playing Candy Crush, or listening to music seeping out of headphones when the airplane leaves the gate. Because I love paper books, I’m secretly satisfied that the e-reading people have to wait to enjoy their novels. I can comfortably read anywhere, anytime, no batteries required. Then the FAA had to go and spoil it all, giving people back their electronic devices during takeoff and landing. My 15 minutes of fun are up. The secret is out and the onslaught of electronics has only begun—those devices never had to be turned off.

It’s been a rough few years for paper book lovers. Bookstores have folded—oh, Borders, how I miss ye!—and ebook prices for individuals are bargain basement ridiculous. I’ve moved from being a bookstore browser to a library regular. In the library, I can still see rows and rows of new releases, feel the heft of any book, admire the cover, and check out the author’s bio. I can sample as much of the book as I want before I decide to check it out. I remember many books I’ve read just by seeing the cover. How many e-reading enthusiasts can say that?

But there’s hope for people like me. A report from the Book Industry Study Group notes that ebook sales have flattened out at 30%. I guess the e-reader market is kind of saturated. And researchers at Temple University report that youngsters absorb more from reading real paper books with their parents than ebooks, partly because kids focus on the device and not the story. For me, there are more visual cues (i.e., remember that one funny line that was on the bottom third of the left-hand page, near the front of the book?) that aid in recall and learning. Somehow, cuddling up with a toddler and your e-reader just doesn’t give the same warm fuzzies as touching and feeling pages while reading Pat the Bunny.

Recently, I was at a lecture about the post-digital revolution given by Garrett Kiely, the publisher of the University of Chicago Press. “To authors, the cover remains the single most important item, and it’s invisible in ebooks,” he said. There are a host of other problems for publishers when it comes to ebook releases (such as perpetual draft mode since you can always tinker with an electronic file, books in “print” forever and needing to be sold forever, piracy, multiple sales models that need to be constantly tweaked). So ebooks aren’t really a boon or a barrel full of monkeys for publishers, either.

When it comes to getting on that plane for Philadelphia, I’m packing a paperback. Maybe I’ll even engage in a conversation with the person next to me who likes the book cover. At least it will keep those leaky headphones silent for a while longer.


Keith Michael Fiels

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