The “must-have” gadget this Christmas season is clearly the e-reader. The Amazon Kindle appears to be flying off the shelves, and the Barnes and Noble Nook is back-ordered due to high demand. As a self-professed bibliophile, I have followed the development of e-books with great interest, and even with some concern. At first, my Luddite tendencies prevailed and I thought e-readers were a silly fad, but then for a while my geek side won out and I embraced the concept wholeheartedly. But then I began to question some of the outlandish statements made on their behalf, especially the belief that they will completely replace paper-bound books in the near future. This is not going to happen.
The reason I don’t think e-readers will replace paper-bound books isn’t simply nostalgia; it is an opinion based on technology. And simply put, the paper-bound book is a vastly superior technology compared to the current e-readers. The e-reader is better at some specific tasks, but in most ways, the paper-bound book still offers the best way to read books.
Here are a few ways in which the paper-bound book is superior to the e-reader:
1) A common, lasting format. Currently, the e-reader market is in the classic “Beta vs. VHS” stage. Getting a book on a Kindle doesn’t mean that you could read it on a Nook. There is no clear-cut winner yet in the format wars, so the reader you get now may not be able to read any e-books in five or ten years. Even if the manufacturers of e-readers would agree on a common format, you still must possess an e-reader of some kind to read an e-book. Anyone can read a paper-bound book, however.
2) Easier to share. The Nook has a unique feature that allows you to “lend” your e-books to another e-reader for 14 days (and then, for some inexplicable reason, you can’t re-loan it to them). This is considered advanced in the e-reader field, but it is clearly far inferior to the paper-bound book world, where you can lend your books to anyone you want (they don’t need a compatible e-reader or any device, for that matter) and for as long as you want.
3) More resistance to damage. Ever thought about reading a book in the bath? Good luck if you have an e-reader. Also, if you run over a Kindle with your car, you have to purchase a whole new Kindle and re-download all your books. Running over a book with your car usually just puts a tire-mark on it, especially if it is a hard-back.
4) Longer-lasting. A paper-bound book can outlast the lifespan of a human being. The typical lifespan of a high-tech device is about 2-5 years. Once you are on the e-book track, you will need to constantly keep upgrading over the course of your life to maintain that lifestyle.
5) True ownership. If you buy a book, you own it. Forever. When you buy an e-book, you are just licensing the text from Amazon or the publisher or whoever truly owns the book. If they want, they can take away your e-book for any reason or no reason (which has already happened once with the Kindle).
6) Superior reading experience. This is not as subjective as it sounds. When you read a paper-bound book, you are using more than your sense of sight. You are also using your sense of touch. You know just by holding the book how far along you are – there is no need to check the page indicator at the bottom of a screen. Furthermore, if you need to go back a few pages to remember who a character is or review an important point made by the author, flipping back a few pages while skimming the text is quite easy – at least in comparison to doing the same on an e-reader. Studies have shown that paper allows people to process text better than text on a screen.
7) More focused reading. When you are reading a paper-bound book, there is nothing else you can do with that book. Your entire attention is focused on the text and on nothing else. With an e-reader, you can quickly change to another book or even on some readers decide to browse the web. (Some have noticed that this lack of focus with screen reading is changing how we think). The single-mindedness of the paper-bound book has been called a disadvantage by some, but it is clearly an advantage if you really want to engage the text of the book. Both this point and #6 above leads to a “deeper” reading experience: you can engage the text more closely and in a more focused manner than you can in an e-reader.
This is not to say that the e-reader is worthless; on the contrary, it has many positive features that make it useful for certain types of reading. For example, I often will print out long PDF’s I find online so that I can read them away from my computer. This has lead to piles of paper crammed throughout my office. I can see the benefit of just loading these on an e-reader. The same thing could be said for magazines – do we really need a bunch of paper magazines sitting around the house? Also, I can see much benefit to an e-reader for college students. Instead of lugging around 50 lbs of books that cost north of $500 – books that will probably never been read again by that student – just putting it all on an e-reader can be quite helpful.
But these are specific cases and don’t encompass the whole reading experience. At least for a while, the most “high-tech” way to read a book is the old-fashioned way: paper-bound books.