Printed books versus eBooks

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Paul Boag writes that proponents of printed books are clinging to the romanticism of the past. I’ve been an early adopter of eBooks. I bought an iRex iLiad when they first came out, experimented with a Sony Reader, and finally started reading eBooks in earnest when I got my Kindle, and now frequently read eBooks on the Kindle and iPad.

Paul lists several points of advantage of eBooks. They’re all good, valid points. What puzzles me is his apparent insistence that printed books have not advantages at all, or that any advantages are simply romantic throwbacks. I feel that his list focuses entirely on the technical advantages, and ignores the human element. Indeed, if your aim is to most efficiently consume a book as a sequential set of pages, chapters, words, then the eBook wins hands down. I have now read several novels on Kindle and iPad, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I like being able to size the font to compensate for fact that my eyesight is starting to flag. I like having the convenience of accessing the books on a number of different device, synced to the most recently read page. It’s not so convenient when I find that the Kindle on my bedside table has run out of battery because I haven’t used it for several days and left the network on, but that’s not a huge problem.

But in that model, the book is just something to be consumed and then discarded. Here is a photo of the bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s what I see last thing before I go to sleep at night, and first thing when I wake in the morning:

My bookshelf

Each one of those books holds memories for me. Some represent ideas that changed the way I think, others remind me of specific periods of my life, or of people I have known. I often sit on the edge of my bed of a morning or evening and let my eyes wander across the titles, reflecting on my life, or taking down a volume to flick through and read a passage.

Some were given to me as gifts. To me, this seems to be one of the aspects of books which will be most irreplaceable by eBooks. Even if we resolve the lending issues (still unavailable to owners of Kindle books outside of the US), there will simply be no equivalent to the personal experience of selecting, wrapping, giving and receiving of a paper book at Christmas, on a birthday or just because.

I’ve no doubt that over time eBooks will replace paper books more and more, just as CDs have largely replaced vinyl, and MP3s have largely replaced CDs; just as movie downloads are replacing DVDs, and more and more people will enjoy the definite technical benefits that that brings. But let’s not pretend that the experience is the same, or that something very human will not be lost in the process.


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