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5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books

I am often asked about my reading habits and, in particular, whether I now prefer to read e-books or plain, old-fashioned “real” books (of the printed variety). For a time I went back-and-forth on this question, sometimes preferirng to read on a device and sometimes preferring to read a book. But at this point my mind is largely made up. Today I want to share 5 ways in which books are better than e-books, 5 ways in which I’ll transition from paper to pixels only with a lot of kicking and screaming.

Now this may mark me as a Ludditte and I may eventually look silly. I’m sure there were people who said, “I’ll never give up cassettes in favor of CDs” but, of course, they had no choice; eventually cassettes disappeared and everyone had to migrate to digital music. And it is likely that eventually the same will be true with books. It won’t be anytime soon, but the day will come. But for now, here are my reasons for loving real books so much more.

1. I Can Truly Own a Book

Mortimer Adler points out that there are two ways of owning a book. “The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it.” E-books allow you to have some kind of a property right, though this is still a very different kind of property right from owning a book (it’s more like owning insurance than owning furniture). In one case the ownership is virtual and even revocable. In the other case the ownership is physical and irrevocable. You can own an e-book, but it is a lesser form of ownership than owning a book (as Kindle users discovered when one day their copies of 1984 suddenly disappeared). Owning the rights to read the contents of a digital file is far, far different than owning the book that sits on the desk beside me.

The second type of ownership is where I find e-books even more underwhelming. Adler says that full ownership comes only as you make the book a part of yourself and this is done by interacting and engaging with it. You will know a book that is truly owned because it will be “dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back.” If I look at your e-book copy of The Holiness of God I will not know whether you have read it once or 1,000 times. If you look at my physical copy, you will know immediately. You will know because of the bent pages, the highlighted sections, the notes, the scribbles, the circles. The spine is loose, the pages are dog-eared. It shows all the marks of age and use. You will know that i have read the book, you will know what it has meant to me, you will know that it has impacted my life. Very little of this can be communicated in an e-book. If I am left with a lesser kind of ownership, won’t I then also be left with a lesser kind of ownership of the book’s contents, of its ideas?

E-readers are beginning to allow some interactivity, but it is of a very different order. Taking a note in an e-book or making a highlight in it is independent of the book; all of that information is stored apart from the book in a file or a database. Send the book to another person and you’ll find that all of the notes and highlights are gone. They belong to you or your device, not to your book.

There remains a vast difference between owning a physical book and owning an e-book. My brain may some day adapt (evolve?) to the point where I can believe that a file on an iPad is in some way equal to a physical book sitting on my bookshelf, but for the time being, I just cannot equate the two. And perhaps the time will come when I can interact better with an e-book than with a physical book. But until that day, I cannot give up those books. I cannot give up the way I can own them.

A quick story before I move on: Some time ago I was at a library where I saw a book written by an old, old author. That book had been owned by two great theologians, first by one and then by another (who had purchased much of that first man’s library). Contained in the book were notes and remarks by those theologians, one remarking on the work itself and the other reflecting both on the work and on the other theologian’s notations. It was fascinating to see how different people had experienced that book, how it had become interactive in its own way. That is not easily reproduced in an e-book format.

2. I Can Loan a Book

One of the most disappointing aspects of e-books is that they cannot be loaned out. Most have some kind of digital rights management which ties a book to a particular owner. When I buy a Kindle book, I may have a copy of that book on up to 5 of my devices, but they must be devices tied to my Amazon account. I cannot loan my book to you; I cannot even loan it to my wife if she has a Kindle of her own. Of course that’s not strictly true—I can loan you my book by loaning you my reading device, but that’s like giving you access to one of my books by loaning you my entire library, book cases and all.

Even if an e-book does not have any kind of digital rights management, “loaning” you my e-book is a very different thing. I would be making you a copy of a file and allowing you to open it on your device. In this case I am not really loaning it at all; I am duplicating it. This is far different from having me loan you a printed book in which you can see what I have read, you can see how I have interacted with the book, and you can know that I am loaning you something that belongs to me. By handing you my book I am saying “You can experience this book and learn about my experience of this book.” There is a level of trust, a level of intimacy and shared experience in loaning books that cannot be duplicated with electronic books.

3. A Book Offers an Experience

Books are a tactile experience. An e-book reduces books to merely words; a printed book maintains that a book is far more than words—it is an experience and an object. Books can be touched, they can be held, they can be smelled (particularly if they are old!). A book includes a cover, a binding, a slip cover, the texture of words or images impressed upon that cover, the pages, the deckled edges, the weight of the paper, the feel of turning a page. All of these elements combine to make a book what it is. They tell you a lot about the book, about its value, its uniqueness, its importance.

As devices go, a book is unique—there is nothing else quite like it. An e-book reduces a book to just its words, it strips out any sort of tactile experience, and makes turning a page that same experience as playing a video game or shuffling music. It makes a book a whole lot less than it ought to be.

4. A Book Is a Single-Tasking Device

A book is inherently opposed to multi-tasking. There is very little that can be done while reading a book (apart from the act of reading itself) and the book never seeks to distract its reader. The book is a single-function device, a technology crafted and honed in order to provide the best possible reading experience. If we wanted to create a technology that would do reading well and do nothing else, I don’t know that we could do better than the book.

The e-book on the other hand, tends toward distraction. The devices we use to read our e-books are rarely single-function or, perhaps more correctly, are tending away from single-function. They are created to do many things well, which means that the focus is not only on the reading experience but on gaming, browsing, searching. The iPad has reading as just one of many functions and a relatively minor one at that. Meanwhile e-books tend to be interactive, to have built-in dictionary searches, hyperlinks and other ways of drawing attention away from the text at-hand. In all these things the devices and the books tend to distract, to offer far more than just the reading experience. They beep, they buzz, they disengage in a thousand ways.

5. I Can Buy a Used Book

I don’t ever anticipate searching quiet side streets in old towns hoping to find used e-book stores. That’s because there is no such thing as a used e-book. E-books are never used, even when they have been read. They are still just files, as unblemished after ten years as they were the day they were duplicated. They will never go down in price, they will never suddenly appear as hidden treasures, dug out of a box in an old, rundown book store. They can never be loaned out and they can never be resold. They are forever new, forever fresh, forever unused and unstained. There will be no rare first editions, no beautiful special editions to be searched for decades from now. The used book will become a vestige of the past.

To Be Fair…

As I look over this list I think of the ways that music has changed in a digital era. Albums are no longer albums. Because songs can be purchased as singles through iTunes and Amazon, we now have albums that are simply a collection of singles. People buy the songs that most appeal to them and leave the rest. And so music has changed so that artists now have to regard their albums as a collection of singles, not an experience that moves from song 1 to song 12, sometimes swelling and sometimes settling back. Music is different today than it was in an era of compact discs—it has been forever transformed by the changed medium. I think we would do well to consider how books will change as they become electronic. What are the ideologies carried by the digital media and how will these begin to transform books? And how will that in turn shape us? These are things worth thinking about.

But the news is not all bad and I want to be fair. I cannot deny that e-books have some clear advantages over their printed counterparts. Stay tuned tomorrow to read 5 ways in which e-books are better than printed books.