Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My take on e-readers

I'm thrilled about the abundance of e-readers, I really am.  Seriously.  I promise.  I'm so happy for those of you who have them and maybe one day I'll get one myself (although I don't anticipate that happening anytime soon).  Last night at dinner, however, my dad told me something that led me to provide my family with a diatribe valuable lesson on the reality my opinions.

Someone I know
is selling all of his commentaries and reference books because he can get digital editions.  He plans to use the money to buy an ipad.  Can I just say that I think that is the worst idea I've ever heard in all my life? 

While e-readers are amazing and I agree that they are perfectly suitable for some situations, there are so many issues I have with using them to replace print materials, especially if you already own those print materials.  Want to hear why I will not be buying an e-reader anytime soon and why I will never replace my books with e-books?  I thought you'd never ask:
  • We have no historical context for the longevity of digital materials.  While we have print documents that are thousands of years old, we have absolutely no knowledge of how digital materials will age.  We really don't have a guarantee that the internet will last, or that computer technology will last.  We have at most a few decades of experience with digital media.  I realize that there is nothing to suggest that there will be problems in the future with digital media, but when you compare the few decades of knowledge regarding digital information to thousands of years of knowledge of print materials, digital just hasn't proven itself yet.

  • The rapid rate of change in technology could very well eliminate the e-reader from functionality within a few years.  For those who are using e-readers to read the newspaper, popular fiction, magazines, etc. this isn't an issue.  But replacing expensive and important reference works in print with digital versions that could be obsolete within a few years is not a financial bet I'm willing to make.  Think about microfilm.  What if libraries had thrown out all reference works and put them onto microfilm?  We'd be in trouble because it's quite a search to even find a microfilm reader anywhere.  We have no guarantee that the i-pad and other e-readers won't go the same way within a few more decades.

  • The issue of validity.  It is much, much easier to alter a digital text than a print text.  Copyright violations, intellectual propery ownership, and ethical dissemination of information are also much more difficult to control in a digital, internet based media than in print.

  • Although e-readers and e-booksellers claim that you have ownership of materials you purchase, it isn't quite the same as actually owning the book outright.  You own the book in one format that can most likely be read on one e-reader, maybe two.  Some e-readers allow you to lend books to friends, but those friends must also have the same e-reader you have.  You can't lend to someone without an e-reader.  You can't give the book as a gift when you are finished reading it.  You can't take it back to the used book store and exchange it for credit.  Basically you are paying for access to the book - not the book itself.  Again, if you just want to read the book once, e-readers are a fine solution.  But they shouldn't be a replacement for books that you want personal ownership of.  E-readers just can't provide the same benefits as owning a print copy of the book.

  • Finally, and most importantly, it's just not the same.  Your e-reader may be really cool, but it isn't a book with history.  It's not a first edition Dickens.  It's not a signed copy by your favorite author.  You can't pick it up and hold it.  It doesn't smell like a book.  You can't turn the pages.  It might be pretty and shiny and new but it's still just not the same. 
If you've stuck with me through my awesome lecture, just keep in mind that I'm not dissing e-readers.  There are some things that are ideal for (travel, information you need at your fingertips, etc).  But please, please, please for the love of all things holy, do not sell your collection of printed works in exchange for an e-reader.


  1. I just bought an eReader last night. For me, it's not about getting rid of print. I will still continue to go to the library, to the bookstore and friends shelves for print books. There is nothing better than opening up a book new or old and flipping a page. I can't imagine selling my collection. I love my books and want to keep them. It's a part of history that should be passed down.
    I bought mine for the ease of travel. My fiancé and I are taking a 2 week vacation next year. With the amount I read, taking 6 or 8 books isn't feasible. I could do it, but it's extra weight in the luggage and bulky. (I'm sure a few paperbacks will find their way into my suitcase anyways ;) )
    I agree with you. There's no guarantee on the quality and longevity of an ebook. I have books on my shelf that I would never want to part with no matter how battered and broken they are.

  2. I have an e-Reader (iPad), and love it, but agree, print books will never be replaced IMO.

  3. I would never get rid of my paper books for digital versions! I just bought a Kindle, but expect if I read something on it I really enjoy, I'll be buying a paper copy too!

  4. Couldn't have said it better myself

  5. I absolutely love my e-reader but I would never get rid of my print books just because I have a reader now. And I am still buying print books. Actually it's funny, because I use my e-reader mainy for one genre, all the other stuff I prefer in print. Isn't that weird?

  6. hmmm. I am going to disagree with a lot of this. I think that in the long run the technology that has made ereaders popular will prevent books from going out of print. Your individual ereader may some day be obsolete but the digital files will eventually come up with a standard. That standard will allow books to be read on newer devices. Like MP3s for music.

    I personally, am thrilled to replace my print books and I honestly thought I would not be. I do not miss the smell of a book, or turning the pages. I especially do not miss dusting the books. You are right, it isn't the same. In my experience it is truly better. I much prefer reading on an ereader.

  7. I disagree with parts of what you say. I do own two e-readers and the files I have downloaded I own. They are not held in limbo somewhere despite what people think (because of the 1984 debacle on I have never had a book taken from me because they are all on my hard drive.

    ePub format also seems to be winning out with the format wars so I'm thinking that soon it will be the standard format. No, I cannot lend my copy of my digital book (unless I take off the DRM protection from the files), but if a friend wanted to borrow my reader to read a book I would probably let them.

    I do agree that it's not the same as paper. I still read mostly paper books, but I do like my e-reader and I think digital books are here to stay. Maybe they will go beyond e-readers (see Neal Stephenson's, Diamond Age), but I think as technology changes, you will be able to convert it to another format. Some of your problems with technology almost seem like you think the world will eventually be like Book of Eli or Children of Men. could be right. We might live in a postapocalyptic world at some point, but I think your arguments are pretty close to the Book of Eli movie. Nothing wrong with that though. :)

    And lastly, your dog is absolutely adorable and is one of the cutest dogs I've ever seen!