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