In Defense of E-Readers (Or Anything That Has Words on It)

At this point the e-reader vs. paper-and-ink discussion is so tired that I won’t waste space enumerating all the reasons people report liking one or the other. What I will say is that (forgive me for using this expression in late October) as the holidays approach, I’m reminded of an occasion three or so years ago when I had a conversation on a train that renders the entire e-reader dilemma irrelevant.

I was on a packed red-line train in downtown Chicago during rush hour in December, and a man with slicked-back hair began talking to me about my festive red coat. First of all, as a rule, such close quarters generally call for averted eye contact and zero conversation, with the exception of muttered “I’m sorry”‘s when you lose your balance and stumble against someone, but that may just be the social hermit in me. I smiled at the man and then returned to reading my Kindle – what was on it at the time I can’t now recall. But the man wasn’t done. He asked me if I had gotten Christmas gifts for my family. I’m sure I said yes, although that was likely a lie (hermit and procrastinator), and again glanced down to my screen to return to my book. Undeterred again, the man asked me what I had gotten my parents. Now, at this point, I probably should have told him to mind his own damn business, but I only think of good comebacks 12 hours after the fact. I must have bought my dad some biography or other, because I said books. The man grimaced and said, “I would hate to get a book as a gift.”

Now, let’s examine. Putting aside the fact that he insulted the very activity I was enjoying when he interrupted me, what really alarmed me was the fact that he believed any and every book would be a bad gift. There are millions of published works on the market from fiction to nonfiction to graphic novel to cookbook to fantasy to post-modern apocalyptic sci-fi romance. You get the idea. And this man didn’t think any of those millions of options would be a satisfactory gift.

This is why I don’t care if you read from a paper book, an e-reader, or a stone tablet. The most important thing is that you’re reading. As I write this I know I sound like a schoolteacher, which I am not, but the sad truth is that adults need to hear this more than children. Reading is the only activity I can think of that demands that you exercise both your imagination and your morality at the same time, while also being in a totally safe space. Almost every work of fiction involves characters making either conscious or subconscious moral choices, and, while reading, you must not only imagine character, setting, dialogue, and more, but you must either consciously or subconsciously agree or disagree with these choices. Being pulled in both directions at once is another option too. And the best part? No one is there to judge you if you know it was wrong for Kelly to poison Sam, but you kind of think Sam had it coming. Life isn’t always clear-cut about good guys and bad guys, and literature (so-called “high” or “low” alike) knows how to show us this, along with our options.

Imagination and morality (and by morality I mean in the most general sense of how we interact with other humans) are two things that keep the world’s gears greased. Or my world at least. There are people who will disagree with me, and others who will always say they don’t have time to read. And I don’t think these people any less intelligent or worthy. I just think they’re missing out on something that can be both a learning experience and immensely enjoyable. Harry Potter always did the right thing in the end, even if we sometimes thought he was kind of an idiot for it. “The right thing” can be so hard to define, but literature, across the span of millions of stories, finds a way to put words to it.