Imagine if ebooks came first. Imagine if Gutenberg had not created the printing press but the Kindle. Now, hundreds of years later, we are beginning to experiment with this new medium of paper and beginning to acclimate ourselves to printed books. Though on one level this little scenario is absurd, it can also be an interesting thought experiment. Stick with me for just a few moments and I’ll show you.
To understand some of the fear and criticism directed toward digital reading, we need to first understand the way we tend to relate to new technologies. We do not take any new technology on its own terms, but always in comparison—in comparison to what was dominant before it. In this way the old technology always has the upper hand and we consider it superior until the contender proves itself. You and I were born into a world dominated and shaped by the printed book. For this reason we are naturally inclined to consider it superior to all that has come before and all that will come after. We are disinclined to see the strengths of any new and competing medium, for to do that we must first admit the weaknesses of the old. This is especially difficult for a medium as important and well-loved as the book.
Perhaps one way we can better assess the book, though, is to imagine that it is threatening to disrupt the ebook, rather than the other way around. In this scenario, you sat on your mommy’s knee while she read Goodnight Moon from a tablet, you heard dad read Little House on the Prairie from his Kindle, and you spent your years of schooling learning from electronic textbooks. Gutenberg had worked tirelessly centuries before to perfect the Kindle but now Jeff Bezos is heralding the remarkable new technology of the printing press and the amazing books it churns out. Where would the new book pale in comparison to the old ebook? What are the reasons we would give to remain with the status quo? Here are a few:
Endnotes and footnotes. We would encounter an endnote in the text and think it absurd that we then have to keep one finger inside the book to mark our progress, flip to the very end, search for the right page, and read that endnote in a much smaller font. Or we would encounter a lengthy footnote in the text and grow annoyed that it takes up one-third of the page, breaks into the flow of the text, and disrupts it with a font two or three points smaller than the main one. In an ebook we only need to tap the note and it immediately displays over the text. Tap it once more and it is gone. It requires no flipping and it brings no disruption. It’s a great solution.
Dictionaries. We would be amazed that anyone would expect us to consult an entirely different book—a big, heavy dictionary that may be in an entirely different room—when we need to look up an unfamiliar word. In an ebook the dictionary is built right in! Simply tap on the word and immediately we can read a dictionary definition. I look up far more words when reading ebooks than printed books because of the sheer convenience and simplicity of it.
Indexes. Indexes would perplex us. Why would we want to have an index, a list of words with their corresponding page numbers, only at the end of the book? This would prove itself in no way superior to the ability to tap a search button, type in a word or two, and gain immediate access to every use of it within the book. An index would represent a dramatic step backward.
Notes. We would count it ridiculous that any notes, marks, and highlights we make in a book reside exclusively on those pages and that only manual transcription can make them accessible outside of it. In books our highlights and annotations are nothing more than marks. In ebooks they are information that is electronically extracted and stored for us, made ready for use in other media. In this way ebooks help us easily gather important information so we can more simply put it to use.
Portability. We would consider it absurd that a personal library would now be a collection of physical objects that are heavy, bulky, and nearly impossible to move as a collection. Ebooks allow us to have a library that is completely portable. We can take thousands or tens of thousands of books with us anywhere and at any time, all on a single, inexpensive device. They add no weight and they add no bulk.
Security. We might hear about a person who lost his library to a natural disaster and blame it on the medium. We might say something like, “That’s what happens when you commit to paper books. You’re only ever one fire or flood away from losing it all.” Physical objects are always in danger of some kind (see Matthew 6:19-20). With ebooks our collection is always available and always backed up, endlessly duplicated for our convenience.
I know there are many more comparisons we could make and in many cases they would highlight the superiority of printed books—proprietary or defunct formats in ebooks, for example, or the ability to have an author personalize her book by signing her name in it. But really, this is the point. No medium is perfect, not even the beloved book. To properly assess a medium, we need to first own our tendency to compare it unfairly to the one that is currently dominant. (Do you remember people laughing at Steve Jobs and his iPhone and saying that no one would ever buy a phone that has no physical keyboard?)
For the first time in 500 years the printed book has found a worthy rival in the ebook. One will eventually inevitably emerge the winner. For what it’s worth, I think it will be a protracted battle that will eventually see the ebook vanquish its predecessor. Until then, we all have the joy and responsibility of assessing both, appreciating both for their varied strengths and weaknesses, and enjoying both grow stronger through the competition.