Are we burning our books yet?

Before I get into this article I want to express that I do not want to trade my book collection for a Kindle. There are several reasons why: personal preference, simple practicality, and even contribution to social injustice. Having said that, I would not actually mind owning a Kindle (or another brand of e-book reader). With every technology, e-book readers have their flaws and their benefits. Will the benefits outweigh the flaws? Maybe. Like I said earlier: there are several reasons why I hate the idea of e-book readers, and a few reasons why I love the idea.

Let’s start with the reasons I don’t like the idea of e-books. My number one reason is that of ascetics. There is nothing like wandering into Powell’s late on a Saturday night. It brings me great joy to sift through a mound of books in the coffee room and figure out what book(s) I want to buy. It is almost ritualistic; I’ve been doing this for most of my adult life. But asides from this ritual, there’s the pleasure of finding bookmarks, receipts, and who knows what else in the binds of an old book. There’s the fact that I like to underline and write in and highlight and even look at what others have written and underlined and highlighted in books. There is also the feeling of holding a book in your hands, just flipping through it, page after page. There’s the smell of a book. I could go on and on with the different aesthetic qualities paper books have. These things are things we would loose if we all read e-books exclusively. I find the idea almost heartbreaking.

Asides from aesthetics, one reason I do not like e-books is they are, in many cases, simply impractical and limited. If one drops their e-book reader and breaks said e-book reader, one cannot read their books. If the batteries go out on one’s e-book reader, one cannot read their books. If one is in a dusty and/or damp place one cannot read their books. The E in e-book stands for electronics – which tend to be very fragile. And let’s not forget: e-book readers usually cost a couple hundred dollars. If you leave your e-book reader on the bus, you are out that much…whereas if you leave your paperback book on the bus, it might cost 20 bucks at the most to replace (and usually one can find a used copy for significantly lower costs). The very thing innovation in e-book readers, their “electronic” nature, is also their fatal flaw.

I mentioned briefly the cost involved with e-book readers, and how this contributes to their impracticality. The cost also contributes to another reason why I do not like e-book readers: the idea of e-book readers contributes to a social injustice in our society. In a truly paperless book society, the poorest people will not have access to books because they cannot afford e-book readers. This is setting up a scary precedent – a divide between those that can afford to read, and those that cannot. There is already the digital divide between those who are and are not online. A paperless book society will in fact strengthen this divide. Information in any form will not be available to those who cannot afford an e-book reader. There is also the college student to think about. It is a probability that some of the first publishers to go fully paperless will be the textbook publishers. Textbook publishers HATE the used book industry, and make great strives to put out new editions as often as they possibly can, so as to increase their profits. If these publishers can sell e-books instead of paper books (coupled with DRM), the average student will HAVE to buy a new book, thus upping the cost of books by hundreds of dollars. And again, if said student is studying on the bus or in the park or wherever and they forget their e-book reader, they are out a couple hundred dollars. Most college students live on student loans and part time jobs, and really don’t have that much cash to spend every-time they forget their book. I know when I was in college, I freaked out about loosing a 45-dollar book! I can’t even imagine what it might be like to loose a two hundred dollar book!

Don’t get me wrong – e-books have their place; there are pros to e-books and e-book readers. Most of the pros, from my viewpoint, have to do with reducing bulk. If you’re like me, you have dozens of magazines which you do not want to get rid of, yet do not quite know what to do with! If one could obtain digitized copies of said magazines, as well as future issues, one could eliminate the piles of said magazines. Another bulk reducing pro: I really do not care to own all the books I read. A great deal of my books end up proudly displayed on my bookshelf awaiting for the next time I want to read said book (or at the very least, loan it out). However, a lot of the books I have are destined to be sold back to Powell’s or given to a thrift store (quite possibly in the middle of the night – dumped on their front door so they can’t say “sorry, we don’t want these”). E-book readers could very well eliminate the bulk of these books. E-book readers could especially be useful for those who buy airport novels (though why anyone would read such trash is beyond me!). And of course, bulk reduction means less trees killed to produce books; e-books are made of pixels, so e-books are better for the environment.

Many advocates of e-books believe it is inevitable for books to go fully electronic in the near future. These people point to the digitizing of music and movies over the last decade – thus books are logically the next thing to digitize. These advocates forget something: The dominant medium for music and movies changes every ten years or so. In music alone, the dominant format has changed from records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs, and now to digital formats such as mp3s and mp4s. Books, on the other hand, have not had such an evolution. Books have been around thousands of years, and about the biggest format change is that of handwritten scrolls to printed books. Books are probably the most stable information medium the world has ever known. So are we going to just burn our libraries and go to an all digital format? Only time will tell, but given the history, it is not very likely – and I’m just fine with that. All things considered, e-books have their place, but e-books have their boundaries as well.

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2 Responses to Are we burning our books yet?

  1. Avatar Monty Python
    Monty Python says:

    This comment is not spam.

  2. I agree and I’ve never desired a kindle but.. I just found a free Kindle Blackberry app and I’m going to get it 🙂 I may not actually buy any books but I’ll have the option.