Sandy Harris has long enjoyed laid-back conversations about literature with the other members of her book club. Lately, though, technology is complicating the routine: "We're definitely divided into the Kindle people and the not Kindle people," Harris says, alluding to Amazon's popular digital reading device.
Welcome to the changing landscape of book clubs, those ubiquitous living-room forums where dog-eared tomes -- with favorite passages marked by hand -- often now share space with Kindles, Nooks, iPads, iPhones and other portable devices. Resentments simmer. Protocols are upended -- and last December, Harris, a special-education teacher at Concord High School, wondered whether her group's annual Christmas book swap was endangered, with so many members downloading e-books rather than buying old-fashioned hardbacks and paperbacks.
"So I emailed the group," she says, "and I said, 'Wow, what are we going to do now that so many of us have Kindles?' And the response was fast and direct: 'Smell the print. Feel the weight. Get over it, Sandy. We're doing books.' "
The book swap went on. Yet the numbers of digital converts -- like Harris, a Kindle user -- keep multiplying in book clubs. Those who own the devices can digitally write comments about specific passages, save the locations and jump straight to them during discussions. There's no need to carry bulky printed books while traveling, and precious shelf space is preserved at home.
Ease of use draws some in
Sometimes, a cultural divide pits old-school purists against the vanguard: "What is it that disgusts me?" ponders Santa Cruz book club member Mary Offermann, an artist who treasures "the heft, the feel, the visual pleasure of a well-designed book.
"Well, disgust might be too strong a word, but it is close," she says, describing the "avidity with which, when we're ready to discuss what book to read at our next meeting, my friends jump to their Kindles. It's as though the other people aren't even in the room."
E-readers allow users to sprint online to the e-book catalog and instantly download a title at a fraction of the typical hardback's cost -- and even for less than many paperbacks. Busy members can read them almost anywhere, any time.
Peninsula book-club member Lauren Angelo reads an e-book on her iPhone while standing in line at the grocery store. Waiting for a friend at the gym, she reads it some more. The 33-year-old mother of two, a former software engineer, has been zooming through "The Privileges: A Novel," by Jonathan Dee, which her club will discuss at its next meeting.
And unlike some of her friends, tethered to less tote-able "physical books," Angelo will finish on time. "Reading on all my devices," book club deadlines are never a problem, says Angelo, who even rocks her 6-month-old to sleep with a Kindle in hand.
Nancy Salmon, a club liaison on staff at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, says she hasn't noticed much infiltration of e-books into the 254 clubs registered at the store. Paper-and-ink books still rule, she says, though some customers have bought downloads from the Google (GOOG) eBookstore catalog, available through Kepler's website and those of other independent bookstores.
In any event, one shouldn't assume that all high-tech fanatics own Kindles or other devices. Software engineer Michael Plasterer, who once worked on the development of an e-book reader for Plastic Logic of Mountain View, belongs to a club whose members carry old-fashioned books, exclusively, to meetings. Plasterer doesn't even own an e-book reader: "I'm just a book guy," he says.
Angelo, whose club is a subgroup of the Parents' Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, notes that, while she and other members read digitally, no one is "hidden behind electronic devices" at meetings. In fact, most members, even those owning e-readers, bring plain old books to their discussions, and Angelo enjoys perusing the supplemental materials often left out of digital versions: author interviews, discussion questions, critics' quotes. "We transcend the medium," she says. "When you boil a book down to its essence, it's about the writing. It's not about the physical package."
Patti Regehr, a substitute teacher in the Palo Alto Unified School District, tabulates the diversifying media in her own club: "One woman uses an iPad. Another uses the iPad or, when she travels and reads, the iPhone. I use the Kindle, sometimes. Two women listen to Audible" -- audio books, available from Audible.com -- "and two other women just read, you know, the book."
The audio media proliferation has wrought its own changes: For one, members who only listen to books have no way to bookmark or quote specific passages. "Now, the discussion is more like whether or not we like the book or not, but not why," Regehr says. "It's less specific than it used to be."
Linda Fellingham, an Intel (INTC) software engineer and member of the same club for 17 years, switched to the iPad in November. She enjoys toggling between text and footnotes -- a "big help" when the club read Stacy Schiff's heavily annotated biography "Cleopatra" -- and finds herself wholly going over to the e-kingdom, reading voraciously on her iPad during business trips.
A complicated decision
Are there problems? Some. The catalogs for the various e-readers still aren't a match for the vast catalogs of printed books, Fellingham says. Toss in the worry about whether a title is or isn't available at Audible.com, and you've got "one more wrinkle in the permutation," she says, especially when it's time for club members to agree on their next book.
In the pre-e-book era, the club would wait for new hardback novels to come out in cheaper paperback editions. Or they would bring stacks of favorite books, pulled from their shelves at home, Regehr recalls: "We would pass all the books around, look at the covers, and we would talk about it."
Does she miss the routine? "No, it wasn't fun. Sometimes people's feelings were hurt when their books weren't chosen."
She prefers the new routine? "Hmmm. It's less personal. Nobody brings their books, and people just throw out titles."
Betwixt and between.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
E-book sales, January 2011: $69.9 million
E-book sales, January 2010: $32.4 million
Hardcover sales, January 2011: $49.1 million
Hardcover sales, January 2010: $55.4 million
Percentage of Americans who read e-books: 7 percent
E-reader shipments worldwide, fourth quarter 2010: 5.1 million units
E-readers in use by end of 2011, estimated: 10.3 million
Number of titles available for Amazon's Kindle e-reader today: 850,000
Number of titles available for Amazon's Kindle e-reader one year ago: 630,000
ON THE RISE
E-book sales in January 2010
E-book sales in January 2011.
MORE NUMBERS, PAGE A12