What is lost in E-Books?

Everyone has been thinking about what might be lost as we move more toward e-books. When Richard Nash was asked in an interview at Findings: “If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?” I found his answer very insightful:

I would probably go with the signaling aspect. How do we get digital books to function as a social signaling device? It’s the cover. A person you see reading the book on the subway. A person you see reading the book in a cafe. And the social transaction that occurs in that glance. “Oh, I meant to read that book.” “Oh, that girl looks really interesting.” … That kind of stuff that goes on around books is something that we don’t presently have at all around digital reading. … Books are quite interesting in that we have such intimate relationships with them, that we have a pretty good idea whether or not we want someone to know whether or not we’re reading a particular book. If we want them to know, we know we know, and if we don’t want them to know, we know that also.

First, if you are like me, you, or your friends have a special bookshelf hidden out of sight so that guests won’t be offended by the fact that you own “those” books. On the other hand, I feel like Nash is fully forgetting the social aspect of e-reading. I sometimes share a quote on Facebook from a Kindle book I am reading, and so I was shocked when I talked to some of my friends who had seen me reading a particular book and then saw it at a book sale, and purchased it solely because of the ease of social e-reading. So on several levels, I feel like Nash has simplified the idea of books losing their signaling capacity for social interactions.

On the other hand, news stories like this make me feel like he is really on to something: “Ebooks Boost Erotica Market.” The jest of the story is that women are now reading much more erotica than ever before. Here’s a quote from the story: “You could be a mom, like, sitting in the park on a playday with the moms down the block and you could be reading, like, a real kinky novel and nobody knows.” Enough said.

What do you think? Is there something lost in ebooks that isn’t redeemed in some way by the benefits of this new format?

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