All indications are that this Xmas past was a bumper season for eBooks. Among the stats being circulated are some just released saying that the Kindle version of books is now outselling paperbacks on Amazon.com. Needless to say, this has once again sent the radicals spilling out into the blogs, screaming revolutionary slogans, and proclaiming that the longstanding dictatorship of Gutenberg and his followers has come to an end.
As a longtime practicing digitarian, I both understand and appreciate the convenience and enhanced functionality that eBooks potentially offer. Certainly numerous scenarios for the efficient application of content via eBooks come to mind, especially in technical or business environments. That’s not the point. What I can’t accept is the idea that the printed book should be rendered obsolete. At first I resisted my resistance, worried that I was just some dinosaur clinging to the operant conditioning of a lifetime, and probably guilty of a personal fetish for printed books. Ultimately, I have come to believe that there are many equally strong arguments in support of the classical paper-based codex format.
First of all, however, I think we need to take environmental arguments off the table. The notion that eBooks are inherently more ecologically friendly than books printed on paper is not, to my mind, a self-evident truth. A lot more research has to be done, but I’m going to call this one a wash for now. To hear eBook pundits tell it, a piece of old-growth forest is raped every time a book is printed. In fact, the vast majority of publishers have been using recycled paper stock for decades. Then there’s the argument about the C02 emissions and fossil fuel usage that can be attributed to the trucking of all those books to and from bricks-and-mortar stores. There’s validity to that, of course, but it has to be placed in the context of the similar impact to the environment caused by the manufacture, packaging, transport, and operation of electronic devices. And, when their respective useful lives expire (which, for a printed book, is a lot longer than that of an eReader) discarded hardware becomes problematic toxic waste, while the paper in books can be recycled.
The great advantage of eBooks is, of course, their portability. And, gosh, how can any serious reader not be thrilled at the prospect of having tens of thousands of books stored conveniently at their fingertips in their lightweight Kindle or iPad? Many of those books, especially the classics from centuries past, are available for free. Not surprisingly, it was frequent travelers who became the first early adopters, and vocal fans, of eReaders, simply on the basis of reducing the volume of luggage. (Well, there were also the consumers of romance literature, who quickly found eBooks made it easy to acquire and hide what can only be described as a guilt-tinged addiction).
The very space that eBooks save, however, is itself a loss. Printed books have a physical presence, especially when collected into a library, which somehow befits the ideas and effort it took to create them. From stately leather-bound hardcovers to impertinent, wildly-colored paperbacks, each book has a personality and its own gravitas. Many books are surrogates or totems for the authors themselves. Series or sets of books placed side by side, from Harry Potter to The Great Ideas, show correlation and evolution. A personal library collectively represents the individual, and you are able to get a glimpse into her/his nature from the books that have been collected and read. All that is lost when a book becomes nothing more than bits on a storage device. Just ask the interior designers who are filling custom high-end residences with bookshelves — albeit containing deluxe hand-bound volumes.
There are some that claim the ubiquity of eBooks is translating into increased literacy. Frankly, if it’s true, that one fact alone will shut me up on the subject once and for all and turn me into an eBook fanatic. Yet I’m skeptical, and there is some evidence that increased downloading is really nothing more than digital hoarding, and once the novelty wears off it has yet to translate into more sustained reading per person. (I’m guilty of that myself, thanks to Project Gutenberg.)
The real problem, whatever the book’s format, is that you still have to find the time to actually read it. An “avid” reader purportedly gets through a book a week — that’s about 50 a year. At that rate it would take me 200 years to get through 10,000 free books. It’s not like I’m going to gain a huge amount of extra reading time by not having to go visit my local booksellers either, now that acquisition of an eBook is only a click away. By my reckoning that’s only going to save me a few hours a month at best, and a book can take up to a dozen hours to read.
Sigh. I suppose when that 20-hour work week that was promised to us at the start of the digital revolution finally comes to pass, we’ll have all the extra time we need. And, thanks to our e-readers, it’ll be so easy. On our way to our stress-free, highly-enjoyable jobs, we’ll just put our flying electric cars on autopilot, kick back, and enjoy.