Day after day, when I still worked at the Forty-second street branch of the public library, I saw the same young man, bearded, intense, cleaning his fingernails on the corners of the pages of a book.And that, right there, is why I love e-books so much. Just think of all the places that library book in your hands has been - how many toilets it sat next to, how many meals have been eaten above it, how many noses were blown and hands not washed before they touched its pages. That "Sizzler" has been flying off the library shelves ... and into houses filled with stomach flu, snot, and spittle. Sure, cold and flu germs generally only live for a few hours or days on dry surfaces ... but norovirus can live happily for weeks, and there are plenty of infectious agents that can give you cooties for months after their donor left their residue behind on that book. If nothing else, in this age of MRSA and flesh-eating bacteria and all sorts of other resistant strains of things, e-books are a step in the right direction for containing these outbreaks.
There are plenty of other reasons to love e-books, of course. For one thing, it is possible to mark interesting passages in them without it actually disfiguring the book. No more dog-eared pages, no more inane comments scribbled in the margins, and no more highlighters bleeding through page after page. A few taps of the finger, and my personal page markers are on there, and no one else has to see them when I return the e-book to circulation. This is a godsend for someone like me who collects interesting phrases and passages, but feels guilty every time they mark up a physical book. Now I don't have to keep my journal with me whenever I read - I can bookmark the pages on my e-reader and come back to them when I'm ready to record things for posterity.
And speaking of keeping things with me, that may be the greatest benefit to e-readers: the fact that you can take your books with you everywhere, without adding another thing to carry. My house has somehow ended up with four devices capable of acting as e-readers, five if you count my laptop, and six if we could find my daughter's iPod (which has been missing since November, so fat chance of it showing up now). When I'm home, I tend to use the larger screen of the iPad, mainly because I'm lazy and I don't have to flip pages as frequently with the larger screen. But I always have at least one book going on my iPhone, too, both for me and the kid. That way, if we get stuck waiting for a table in a restaurant, or we go on a car trip, or I have to kill time while the kid plays at the shopping mall playground, whichever of us is bored has something to read. This is way more convenient that schlepping around physical copies of Walden and The Wind in the Willows for months. After all, my phone is pretty much always handy. Sure, the screen is a little small, and if I read for too long on it I get a crick in my neck - but it's a great stop-gap measure.
Another benefit of these e-reader devices is their ability to play audio books, as well. True, not every device can handle this, but three of our four main devices do (four or five if you count the laptop and the lost iPod), and it's been great to have this as an option. No more fumbling to switch CDs during my husband's commute - he can just plug his Kindle into his car stereo and play the books directly through the car speakers with no interruptions to switch discs. No more being tied to a CD player that skips if you move it - I can haul my iPad with me throughout the house as I do my chores, listening to Vampire Porn** all the while (and then put in earbuds and keep listening when Liza gets home from school). And Liza is a lot more willing to listen to some classics of literature than she is to sit down and read them ... especially if she's stuck in the car while I drive her the 20 minutes to school in the morning. Hah! You don't want to listen to Heidi, kid, get yourself out the door in time to make the bus. Otherwise, shut your yap.
E-readers also offer instant gratification, in many circumstances. Sure, I can go online and order a physical book through the library, and it might show up at the local branch the next day. But I still have to make time to go pick it up, and at some point I have to go back to return it. E-books, on the other hand, are frequently available immediately - as in, I just checked it out two minutes ago, and now I'm reading it, and I am still in my pajamas in bed. Even the ones which have a wait - and there are many of those, don't get me wrong - generally arrive sooner than wait-listed physical books, plus I don't have to go anywhere to check them out. E-mail tells me my book is available, I click the link, sign in, and download the book. And when I'm done, I can return it without getting in my car - easy peasy!
I'm never going to convert fully to e-books. I love the feel of a real book in my hands, I love the smell of bookstores, I even love the sound of turning pages. There are some books that will ALWAYS be better in print, just because that's how they were "meant" to be read. I'll give up my signed copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy over my dead body ... when I mentioned something from it yesterday and wanted to read a certain passage to Liza, that was the copy I immediately reached for. And yet, when she was intrigued and wanted me to go on, I downloaded the audiobook of it so we could both listen. And I couldn't help pointing out the irony of listening to that book - on my iPhone.
** that's how Jason once referred to the supernatural romance stories I read, and the name stuck