Posted by: Nathan | March 30, 2009

Why I’m Leery of E-Books

We all knew it was bound to happen. With music and video going digital and becoming much  more computer friendly, books could not be far behind. Amazon introduced the world to the Kindle, and the new iPhone has a book downloading application. I have even heard of a campus that is considering moving all textbooks to electronic versions. All of these advances in technology are making reading much more convenient to consumers and, in many cases, cheaper. Who could possibly object to such a development? Me. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I believe the proliferation of e-books is more curse than blessing.

Let me first admit the advantages that e-books have over traditional books, and there are many. E-books are the paragon of portable. Sure, novels, newspapers, and short works are easily carried in one’s bag, but textbooks and longer novels are supremely heavy and unpleasant to lug about. Also, owning a device like a Kindle makes one device capable of being any book. Don’t like your current reading material? Download another! I know my esteemed colleagues Jason and Kyle have been rallying for more electronic books, and publishers seem to be responding (albeit slowly).

Going along with portability, e-books are easy to hold while reading; this is not to be easily dismissed. Heavy books aren’t fun to wrestle with while reading. They’re too heavy for one hand, and the reader needs to constantly shift positions to be comfortable. E-books also have the potential to be much cheaper. With no ink, paper, cover, shipping or storing necessary, and electronic copy is far more affordable for both reader and publisher. I understand the appeal of electronic reading material, and I also am sure this trend will not abate any time soon. Like the music and the iPod, the marriage of convenience and availability will eventually be too much for the average reader.

However, even with all the above advantages, I much prefer regular, paper-and-ink books. One reason for that preference is technology overload. I spend a lot of my day dealing with electronics. I work on computers at both my jobs. At home, I spend too much time on my laptop (like, um, right now) and watching TV. My cell phone is with me everywhere. I don’t need more technology! It’s a delight and relief to hold something that doesn’t beep, ring, turn off or on, run out of batteries, break, get stolen due to its high cost, or have a screen. People can’t contact me via book. Books have no extra functions to distract me. They do only one thing: they have words on pages that wait to be read. They are quiet, patient and far more challenging when I actually engage them than any electronic thing I’ve ever encountered. I want to escape sometimes. I open a real book, and the technological world waits.

Secondly, books are wonderful things per se. I love the cover art of a book that entices me to open it. I love the title pages and the dedications. I like turning palpable pages using my fingers. The feel of a book is important to me: I seek smooth pages and covers that feel good in my hands. I even enjoy the weight of a book. Breakfast at Tiffany’s should not be as heavy as Moby-Dick; it feels false. I even enjoy the smell of a book, especially brand new ones and really old ones. A book is much much more than the words it contains—it has tremendous worth as an object, which the e-book fad completely discards. How many e-books are you going to put on your shelves at home? How many can you sell later if you wish? How many can you take an actual pen with actual ink and write on in your own handwriting?

I would also argue that the convenience of e-books, which is one of its greatest assets, is also a significant drawback. If you’re reading an e-book while on the subway and you tire of it, you fire up your browser and downloadanother or do something else. This enforces our repugnant cultural assumption that we can have anything we want now. One of the more valuable lessons of reading is persistence. Many of the best works don’t appeal to one immediately; one has to keep at it in order to profit from the experience. If I’m stuck with a book I don’t necessarily love, I’ll read it anyway, and usually I benefit from the experience.

By this point I probably sound like a curmudgeon. Perhaps I am. However, I do not advocate the abolition of e-books, just the prudent use of them. I think there are a great many areas of life where e-books would be quite useful and make more sense than regular books (expensive textbooks are a good example). However, I urge caution. We will lose more than most people realize if literature, like music, is swallowed up by the digital age. I hope you, like me, will continue buying actual books. If not, I’ll be glad to take them off your hands (if they’re good).

Did I mention that I like actual bookmarks, too?


  1. I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu lately, and Giles (the librarion/Watcher) said something in a debate over scanned text and printed text that made me think of you: “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be, um… smelly.”

    I’m a huge fan of e-books, and would read more if I had a reader and could check e-books out from the library (or d/l more for free). I’m very lazy. At least traditional books don’t need to fight DRM battles, which is another point in their favor.

  2. I love this topic! Thank you so much for writing about it. Oh, where to start…

    I think I understand your appreciation of the tangible experience of a paper book. I don’t absolutely share the same feelings; I loath mass-market paperbacks and I find hardcover books impossible to read comfortably unless you’re sitting up with the book placed on a table or your lap. This leaves me with trade paperbacks, which many books aren’t available as. That said, I can sympathize with your appreciation as long as I limit my experience to trade paperbacks. I enjoy the feel of it in my hand, the high quality paper or the slick, smooth cover. I can’t say I miss it when I’m reading an e-book, but I do often appreciate it when I’m experiencing it.

    I’m not sure an e-paper device like the Kindle would contribute to your technology overload as much as you suspect. While I don’t own one, it seems to me that the experience is very streamlined and simple. A list of available books and a couple big buttons to turn the pages isn’t the same as the chittering, frenzied, ad-filled, error-prone electricity of everything else we run on batteries (also keeping in mind that e-paper devices like Kindle can go weeks on one charge, you’d never need to be worrying about finishing a book before your battery runs out).

    I see big pros and big cons to using e-books as textbooks. As you mentioned, portability would be a HUGE, HUGE improvement. Right up there with portability, I’d add SEARCHING. Indexes are fine, but to be able to find every occurrence of a certain word or phrase (in the text or even in your notes in the digital margins) would be absolutely wonderful in a text book. I know I love it in my novels. A big con of digital text books comes in losing the ability to physically turn the pages. Sure, you can bookmark pages/sections and flip between bookmarks. But it’s not the same as sticking one, two, three different fingers in different sections of a textbook and quickly flipping back and forth between the important sections as you try to compare different passages. However, I’m confident technology can easily correct this (give me multiple, physical buttons to point at different bookmarks, and let me display passages, from multiple books even, together on the same screen). I’m not sure textbooks would get much cheaper. Aren’t they mostly expensive because of the work that goes in to writing/maintaining them? I wonder how much it costs simply to manufacture a text book.

    Lastly, I’ll bare my jugular for you and others to easily attack: I don’t like books on shelves. One more thing to not get dusted, one more thing to pack when moving… Maybe this is because I live in a small house that I also don’t expect to be my last. I see the value in being able to hand a physical object to a friend and allow them to read it. But frankly, I see just as much value in the ability to send a book from my Kindle to a friend’s Kindle, even if DRM must lock me out of my copy until my friend deletes his (the Kindle can’t do this, BUT IT SHOULD).

    Books are so different from other mediums like music or movies. I’m not convinced that going digital would have the same ill effects that it’s had on music. Maybe I’m naïve. I doubt that you’re in the minority when it comes to preferring paper books over e-books. And the fact that younger generations are and will continue to be more receptive to the technology doesn’t mean much considering most of them are idiots. I still love it and want more of it myself though!

    Again, great post.

  3. There’s a major subplot in Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOWS END where a group of curmudgeonly, old English professors try to stop a major corporation from its efforts to digitize all the books in the world through a device that shreds them (destroying them) to scan all the text in seconds and reassemble the digital text later. It’s not very plausible, but it’s a fun concept to abhor.

  4. Great post, Nathan. You’ve laid out very well some of the downsides of e-books. I certainly fall elsewhere on the spectrum, as evidenced by my Kindle.

    I guess the over-arching question I have is whether this new delivery medium has an effect on the content of books overall. To me, that’s the crux of the issue: as long as the overall quality of content (both present and future) remains relatively consistent, I say bring on the new mechanisms of delivery. (This, of course, leaves out drops in quality that occur for reasons other than delivery mechanism).

    And I think this holds for music, film, television, etc. There’s this strange (to me) assumption that digitization has hurt the quality of music. I don’t think it has. U2, Coldplay, DMB, et. al. are no worse simply because the preponderance of their albums are now (or soon will be) sold on iTunes. DMB, in particular, isn’t as good as they used to be, but that has more to do with creative direction than the delivery mechanism. The same is true of the movies/TV that I watch through the ROKU player.

    In fact, I would argue that, while the democratization of delivery mechanisms – both for music and books – allows for much more sludge to emerge, it also allows for some really solid artists (cf, Joshua Radin, Iron & Wine) to produce really good stuff and get wider exposure. The same effect happened with the proliferation of cable networks, I think. Who in their right mind would put FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS on network television? Yet it’s allowed to flourish as a great show because of the additional delivery mechanisms. (There’s some really creative stuff on YouTube too.)

    I can see where you’re coming from on the intrinsic value of books (and by extension album art), and that is definitely lost on e-books. I do still buy books (or CDs) in those cases where the tangible stuff makes a difference to me. But for the most part, I’m okay with reading THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST on the Kindle, and don’t feel like I’m really missing out on much.

    One final thing: it’s hard to understate how nice it is not to have newspapers all over our place. I’m between you and Jason about books on shelves, but the main reason I use my Kindle is for the newspaper. Plus, it’s not only less clutter for me, it’s less paper that the newspaper company has to print – win, win, win.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  5. Great stuff. As a quick addition, I’d like to add that translation and dictionary functions for electronic reading devices are also superb bonuses that I neglected to mention.

    As to not liking books on shelves, Jason, I just don’t know what to say. I certainly relate to their unwieldy weight when moving, but that’s barely even a factor for me. The aesthetic appeal, easy access, and wealth of memories render them invaluable to a bookworm like me. I aim to have at least two more enormous bookcases filled before I’m through.

    I wonder what you loathe about mass-market paperbacks? True, they’re not ideal, but the ones I’ve read are much better quality than they have been in the past. I read almost exclusively mass-market books (cheap), and they don’t bother me. As for hardbound, well, that’s ideal! The hard cover protects the pages and is much harder to ruin.

    As for your excellent point on form and content, Kyle, the digital format certainly allows for the proliferation of different voices that we’ve already seen in our era of manifold publishers. I agree that e-books won’t influence how authors compose (at least I hope not).

    However, even though digitization probably doesn’t affect authors, doesn’t the medium alter the message? It sounds very postmodern (especially for me) to say so, but I think how we read influences our understanding of what we read. Think how strange it would be to read Walden on a handheld electronic device! Reading a real book puts the reader in a different frame of mind than reading an e-book; I know it’s true for me, but perhaps others don’t feel that way.

    As for the newspapers, I definitely see your point and think that daily papers are an excellent example of how electronic reading devices can function effectively. If I read a newspaper, I’d probably get a Kindle, too. But can you do the crossword on that thing? If so, I’m impressed.

  6. I’m been reconsidering my statement about personal book collections ever since I made it. Maybe it stems from my wife filling much of our bookshelf space with texts I’m not interested in and she doesn’t even read any more (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The thought of a few shelves filled with books I’ve enjoyed and would recommend IS appealing.

    Mass market paperbacks use dull , soft paper, have cramped, sloppy fonts, and usually have gaudier covers. Hardcovers are nice except for the dust jacket. I hate how dust jackets slide around and slip off (which isn’t a problem with library books as they’re secured together with tape and/or laminating). You can take the dust jacket off, but often the hardcover beneath it has a cheap, grainy feeling. As you may know, trade paperbacks have the same paper, fonts, margins, layout, etc as they would if they were hardcovers. I know they don’t hold up to wear nearly as well, but they’re my favorite to hold (unless it’s an especially thick volume…then I ultimately prefer hardcover).

    I guess I don’t LOATH MMPB’s. But I avoid them when possible!

  7. […] publishing, and electronic paper (E Ink) technology. My friend Nathan makes it no secret that he’s not a fan of these things (at least not as a direct alternative to real, paper books). It took me a little while, but […]

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