Books vs. E-Books

Photo by troyholden.

Much of the discourse surrounding electronic books – e.g., Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s nook, and Sony’s Reader – is what David Edgerton might call “innovation-centric.” That is, a lot of the talk about electronic books is about how, at some indeterminate but nevertheless rapidly approaching point in the future, after having definitively obsolesced printed periodicals, electronic books will supplant the granddaddy of all media: printed books.

Here, for instance, is Jacob Weisberg on the Kindle:

The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.

Yet old and new technologies tend, more often than not, to co-exist for a while. Old technologies, to borrow a line from General Douglas MacArthur, never die, they just fade way.

Moreover, new doesn’t necessarily mean better. Indeed, printed books may actually be technologically superior in many ways – at this stage of the game at least – to the e-books vying to supersede them. (People sometimes forget that books are a technology.)

To explain what I mean by this, I turn to Gabriel Zaid’s wonderful little book So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. In it, Zaid gives six reasons why books are superior to other forms of media.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Zaid’s first point is that books can be skimmed easily. That is, one can flip through a book to get a quick idea of its content. In this respect, Zaid argues, only paintings and photographs are superior to books because you can take them in all at once. Yes, you can scrub through video and audio recordings, but not nearly as easily as you can flip through a book. At this point I think it’s probably safe to say it’s actually easier to skim articles on the Web than it is to skim e-books, and that’s a pretty damning indictment of e-books in my view. Electronics books can, of course, be searched, but they can’t easily be skimmed. This strikes me as an important distinction.

Zaid’s second point is that books can be read at a pace determined by the reader. He writes, “A book can be explored at thousands of words per minute with speed-reading techniques, or one revelatory line can be lingerly contemplated. And it is so easy to turn back, to reread, to halt, to skip things that are of no interest.” In theory, you can read e-books at your own pace as well, but I wonder if the fact that electronic texts are hard to skim also makes it hard to take them in at different speeds. After all, if you can’t skim an e-book first, how do you know what to linger over and what to skip?

Zaid’s third point is that books are portable. But then so are e-books. You never have to plug a book in first in order read it however. [Idea for a Twilight Zone episode set in the not-too-distant future: Everyone on Earth is killed in a nuclear war except for one man who loves to read, and finally he has all the time in the world in which to do so. By this point, however, all books are e-books. The twist is, just as our main character is sitting down in the ruins of the public library to read, the power goes out and he has no way to recharge his Kindle.] And although something like an unabridged dictionary isn’t very portable, a small, slim paperback is clearly more portable than any present-day e-book device expect for maybe the iPhone, not to mention infinitely more flexible.

His fourth point is that you don’t need to make an appointment to read a book. This is one of the major advantages books have over something like television, though digital video recorders increasingly allow people to “time shift” TV shows, but that’s interesting in and of itself because it points to one of the areas where books have had the advantage all along. Zaid’s larger point here seems to be that books are available whenever and wherever, that you can move between books easily, and that you can move within books easily, a potent trifecta.

Zaid’s fifth point is that books are cheap. “Millions of readers,” he observes, “can afford to buy a collection of great books.” E-books might be cheaper in the long run because they can be copied for free and distributed for pennies, but the initial costs are still pretty high. E-book readers are bourgeois devices. Think about how many books can you buy for the price of the cheapest iPad (currently $499). Particularly if they’re used books.

His final point is that books permit greater variety. One day, I suppose, nearly all books will be available electronically. But that day isn’t here yet. And there are some real legal and technological hurdles to be worked out before that happens.

Taken as a whole, Zaid’s points make me think not only that books have some real advantages over other forms of media but that other forms of media may actually be trying, without realizing it, to become more like books, e.g., DVRs help make TV shows more like books.

As Zaid puts it:

Perhaps modern technology’s greatest tribute to the advantages of the age-old book is the attempt to develop electronic screens as thin and flexible as paper, hundreds of which could be bound into something like a book, which would have the same visual and typographic appearance as a book and even the same tactile feel, without electric or electronic cords, e-book readers disguised as printed books.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s not so much that books are getting replaced as it is perhaps that new media forms, in order to compete with books, are increasingly taking on some of the characteristics of books. All of which raises the question: Why not just read an old-fashioned, printed book?

14 responses to “Books vs. E-Books

  1. Good thought-provoking post here.

    To me, though, this is really asking the wrong question — the whole “books vs ebooks” thing is really skirting around a more important (to me) development.

    On the whole, very few (relatively speaking) people read books. The people who do read books aren’t going to stop reading books, for all the reasons listed in your post. People may supplement book reading with e-reading, and if the Kindle, et al, gets more people reading in general, than it’s a net benefit to society.

    But, having had a Kindle now for a few weeks, the real value here is the e-ink and the screen — the Kindle is a way better thing to read from than a computer screen.

    So the real question in my mind is ebook technology versus a computer for *reading web content*.

    And that’s where the Kindle really shines, and that’s one area not listed in the reasons above that a book can never replace — web content. And there’s a ton of really good web content out there.

    Your post, in fact, linked to a whole bunch of good stuff, and I can get all of it on my Kindle and read it there.

    That’s where I’ve found real value — using instapaper and calibre with my Kindle to make web content much more readable and portable.

  2. So what you’re suggesting, Carlo, is that e-book devices like the Kindle might actually be more of a threat to personal computers than to books?

  3. Guillaume Allardice

    Another thought is that a well-stocked shelf of books in the living room can be a great way to tell people who you are, where your interests lie, etc. No one would go up to the Kindle on your shelf and browse through your titles.
    I use an iPod Touch for ebooks and love it. If I read a book that I particularly like, then I will get the hard copy, to be re-read and shown off (Unfortunately this can get expensive for anything other than PD books, the way ebooks are currently priced).

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  5. Thanks for your comments over at Reason, Matt. I corrected the post to make it clear that another part of your post does get into the issue of electricity.

  6. I have a post on kindles in the classroom over at ProfHacker (http://bit.ly/c2gD9I) and one of the commenters made an interesting point about the ways that using a kindle can help those people who need large print to be able to read (or read comfortably). I love being able to change font size on the kindle, and I would not give up the -ink reader for a back-lit screen to save my life.

  7. Thanks for the link, Erin. The commenter makes a good point. But large print books exist, as do reading glasses, so it’s not like books are totally unaccommodating. Moreover, type on paper is easier to read than type on screens, generally speaking, though technologies such as E Ink are helping to close this gap.

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  10. Carla Casilli

    Matt,
    You and I will both be set when the Twilight Zone-like apocalypse comes. (Might I also say that the picture atop your post looks like a little slice of heaven to me.) There are some excellent points in your post: the trifecta seems hard to beat. And when it comes to thinking about books, Gabriel Zaid sounds like my kind of people. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we are members of a once great tribe doomed to disappear into oblivion except for the occasional reverential tale of scholars who lived in a time when poems were not only read but memorized, when paper was made from the pulp of trees, and when searching a text involved accessing your memory of it.

    In the meantime, I’m happy to snatch up old paper books in order to build my own impressive library. As Borges wrote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” To that I say, Amen.

  11. “In theory, you can read e-books at your own pace as well, but I wonder if the fact that electronic texts are hard to skim also makes it hard to take them in at different speeds. After all, if you can’t skim an e-book first, how do you know what to linger over and what to skip?”

    I don’t quite get that point. What is your reading style? Do you first skim through the upcoming chapter and then decide whether you are going to read it fast or slow? I adjust in a dynamical approach: When I don’t get things, I slow down. If topics are known to me I skim through them.

    “E-book readers are bourgeois devices.”
    139 or what $ for a Kindle isn’t really “bourgeois” to me. The iPad you’ve been referring sucks as an eBook-reader, it doesn’t feature an eInk display (have you seen one yet? I’m still amazed at this technique).

    Concerning portability: I think that this is a major plus for eBooks. I usually read more than one book at once, and I don’t always know what I’m going to read when on the road. Also, the battery life is amazing! You can read like 750 pages with one charge. That should be enough to get back to civilization.

    Other than that IMO eBook readers are ill-suited for most academic concerns atm, since you can’t skim, annotations are rather silly and you can’t have two books open at the same time (unless you own 2 reader devices, but that’s costly).

    • Hi Francisco, thanks for your comment. Let me try to address your criticisms.

      First, I read different things differently. That sounds obvious but I actually think it’s really profound. Many of my students, for instance, don’t get that reading a textbook is different than reading a novel. They just think there’s reading. I’m all for what you dub a “dynamical approach,” but skimming an entire book or chapter before diving in can be a good way of figuring out what your general orientation to the text should be. Think about when you’re trying to decide whether to buy a book. Do you skim it? Or let’s say you’re trying to decide between two books to read before bed or on an airplane and you don’t want something too taxing. You may quickly skim them to determine which would make for lighter reading. When I flip through a magazine or newspaper, I don’t read every article as it’s presented to me, but rather I read headlines, scan opening paragraphs, plow through shorter articles, note longer, more serious pieces I want to return to later, and so on. Skimming can help you determine if and then how you want to read something.

      Second, my “Ebook readers are bourgeois devices” line was meant to be somewhat polemical, but I think it’s still more or less true, even though e-readers have gotten cheaper. I have a Kindle, yes, so I’m familiar with its e-ink display, but eventually it will break and/or be rendered obsolete (in a consumer technology sense) by some newer device. To read an ebook, you first have to buy a $100+ device, then you have to buy a digital copy of the book. With traditional books, you just have to buy the book, which won’t be obsolesced as quickly, if ever.

      I concede that you have a point about portability. Just as it’s amazing to be able to bring my entire music library (or at least most of it) with me whenever I leave the house, there’s something thrilling about traveling with a Kindle stuffed with ebooks. I guess the point I was trying to make here is that books – particularly individual books, particularly small paperbacks – are more portable than people sometimes give them credit for, and don’t require special protective cases (unless you count dust jackets, which are usually included with the price of the book) and power chords. I can slip a paperback in my back pocket. I can’t yet fit my Kindle, in its case, with its power chord in my back pocket.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. Your points have forced me to think harder about this.

      • “With traditional books, you just have to buy the book, which won’t be obsolesced as quickly, if ever.” This hasn’t actually come to my mind yet, but it’s a good point for calculating the financial benefits. Kindle’s Book-On-Demand whatsoever approach will at least provide you with updated versions of eBooks for newer devices and save you the time you’d need to convert an eBook to a new format (.mobi surely isn’t the end of the line). Real books won’t outdate, although they will get all yellowish and start smelling funeral-gothic like.

      • See, I love the smell of decaying paper.

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