Paper and digital book libraries

An article on reading electronically from ten years ago, when the iPad was mere months old and the Kindle three years old.

I understand the e-book’s imperfections and limits, and monitor the arguments that it will end publishing or save it, and potentially kill bookstores, which would kill something in me, if it were to happen. But I also believe that the book as we know it was only a delivery system, and that much of what I love about books, and about the novel in particular, exists no matter the format.

– “I, Reader”, Alexander Chee

In these ten years I’ve read books in all forms: paper, scanned PDFs, eupubs on the iPad, on the Kindle device, and via audiobooks. I’ve read a couple of books while switching between the Kindle version and the audiobook (not recommended). To me, the format doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s personal.

What matters to me though is the sense of having a library. I feel the same way about my book cupboard and bookshelves around the house as I do about my Calibre library of e-books. I add book cover images where they are misusing, and add & sort the book genre just as I arrange my paper books.

What is missing with a digital library is the serendipity of physicality. I’ll scan my paper books and pick one from a genre or author I haven’t read for a while. Calibre syncs books with the Kindle but doesn’t yet sync Last Read. Also, sorting by genre of author in a list, while infinitely more flexible, doesn’t have the same feel as casting an eye over your books. The answer’s probably not simply changing the layout from a list to a panel view a la iBooks/Apple Books. We’re fundamentally limited digitally by the viewport, and that breaks something essential. I hold out hope that we’ll come up with something else that’ll outdo the physical world, but until then the joy of taking in one’s library’s books is limited to paper.

Endnote: there is joy in building your own library of highlights – passages, quotes – across books digitally that has no physical equivalent, or at least not unless transcribed, which requires great effort. Since nearly all my e-book reading is on my Kindle device, this is what I’ve used for years:

Look in the documents folder of your E-ink Kindle and you’ll see a file named myclippings.txt. This is a text file of all of the notes and highlights made on your Kindle (but not on the other Kindles or Kindle apps on your account). You can copy this folder to your PC and open it.

And add those highlights to the Quotes & Notes folders of my notes system.

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