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On Books and True Ownership

I have a love-hate relationship with e-books. Among the issues I’ve grappled with most is that of ownership: Which option offers the greater sense or reality of ownership? Is there greater ownership in having a physical copy of a book I can hold in my hand and file on my bookcase, or in having that book available to me anywhere in the world in electronic format? There is a kind of trade-off here.

My brain has not yet been able to fully adjust to digital versus physical ownership. I realized this a couple of weeks ago when I bought a novel in Kindle format. I loved that novel and enjoyed reading it on my Kindle, but at the end of it all I found myself wanting to visit the bookstore to buy a printed version of it, something I could put in my office and add to my bookcase almost like a kind of trophy, a relic that says something about me, about what I’ve loved. I found it interesting that somewhere beyond conscious thought and reason, my brain registers a difference between these things. My brain tells me that I don’t fully own something until I own it physically. Somehow my mind registers owning a Kindle book as something less than owning a book printed in ink on dead trees.

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 very different from owning a book. In reality it is 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 seems 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. Then again, those digital files are available anywhere at any time.

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, or even your Bible, 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-reading devices 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. Mark up a printed book, though, and your notes, your underlines and highlights become a part of the book forever.

Here is something else to consider: What will happen to your e-book library when you die? It used to be that your books would survive you. They would stand as a testimony to the kind of person you were. Many a pastor left behind a vast theological library that could give a pastor of the next generation a helpful start in building one of his own. A man’s books were an important part of his legacy. But what of those who are currently establishing a library on Kindle or Logos or any other e-book system? This is a library which does not fully belong to the man and which in most cases will not and cannot be given to his descendants after him. The library will perish with the man; as his body returns to the dust, his library will return to the ether.

There remains a vast difference between owning a physical book and owning an e-book. My brain may some day adapt to the point where I can believe that a file on an iPad or Kindle 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 manner and the depth in which I can own them, at least when it comes to the books that are most important to me.

And so I continue to prefer printed copies of the important books and the much-loved books, the ones I want to drive deep into my mind and heart, the ones I want to pour over, to absorb. I love my Kindle for light reading, for enjoying a good novel or a Christian living kind of book. But books that I am going to return to again and again and books I would want to leave behind as part of my legacy, those are volumes I still want to have in printed editions, sitting in my office, accessible to all, able to outlive me, able to represent me.