E-readers and the urge to control

Posted: December 3, 2013 in cultural commentary, reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Part of our desire to own and collect books stems from an instinct to control. As in many areas of our lives, we assert that control to feel more like agents of our own destiny, like masters of our world. In business, this manifests as managers setting strict rules. In politics it’s both the intellectual struggle to create orderly systems of thought and the ballot box battles for control of the country. And in reading it’s our book collections, knowing that you have a book to hand even if you’ll never read it again, that it’s there inside your sphere of influence. You own that story, just a little.

Yes, little man, it really is that awesome

Yes, little man, it really is that awesome

I got a new e-reader this week, having broken my last one in a moment of clumsiness at the gym, and it made me think about this issue of ownership again. Because in a digital age we can get hold of many books at a moment’s notice just by going on an e-reader and downloading them from the appropriate store. We can even access books instantly for free through the growing electronic collections of libraries. It can liberate us from the clutter of books, but involves a change of mindset, from one of control to one of flexibility, feeling safe that you can get what you want when you want it if you just let go of the need to own. The book is just as available as before, even more so as you don’t have to work out which shelf or box it’s in. But some of the romance is definitely gone.

I doubt many people of my generation, entrenched like me in thirty-something years of habit, will make the most of this liberation. But the shift from functioning by controlling to functioning through flexible networks is one that’s also emerging in other areas like business management. Maybe, as future generations give up paper pages in favour of networked e-readers, changing reading habits will be symbols of a wider social change.

And that’s enough intellectual posturing for today. I’m off to the gym with my new e-reader. And this time I’m going to be very careful.


Photo by Zhao ! via Flickr creative commons

  1. mwgriffith says:

    I love my kindle 🙂

  2. Lisa Lo Paro says:

    I definitely think you’re right about the need to own and control. Even if I borrow a book from someone else, I feel the need to purchase my own afterward. I have to know I am in possession of something, and an e-reader just doesn’t cut it for me, at least not ninety percent of the time.

    • Been there, had that feeling. There are books in my house that I bought because I’d read them before, saw them going cheap and thought ‘I want my own copy’. And did I go read them again now I’ve got my own copy? Of course not, there were new books to read. But it’s a really hard mindset to break, even when I know in theory that I’m wasting my time.

  3. John Moley says:

    What about the presence of a book?
    We choose which books sit on shelves around our work-spaces, living-spaces, and even our beds. They are tangible features of our environment that we must be aware of on some level. So, surely, they affect our creativity and mind-set. For me, buying a book and putting it on a shelf is a way of saying “I approve of this cultural object and I want it to affect me, however subtly, for as long as it remains on this shelf.” On the other hand, some things that I read I never want to see again and I can quite deliberately exclude such things from my personal library, in a way that is visibly apparent to me even when I’m not reading anything… OK, I’m a control-freak. 🙂

    • I think that, as our mindsets change, we’ll get to providing that approval through our digital collections. Though the ‘our’ here may refer to future generations, not me and you. But also, for me, there’s a balance in that physical part of the environment. Physical books do add something to the environment, but so could other things in that space, including the clutter-free tranquillity of empty space if that’s to your taste. So that part of moving off paper books seems less like a loss to me and more like just another change.

  4. […] part of why many people aren’t just going to leap on the latest, smartest technologies like e-readers and digitally streamed films. And also part of why some people will – it’s being in […]

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