Books Ain’t Dead

IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. ...

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When you cut through all of the chaff, the debate over whether analog books are dead sounds a lot like this:

Pro-ebook, anti-book: I personally think ebooks are fine. They are also cheaper to produce. Therefore, the book is dead.

Pro-book: Hey! I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead, and we should continue to pay taxes supporting our local libraries.

Those are some pretty self-centered arguments, but as a stalwart book partisan I figure the least I can do is be unabashed about my self-centeredness. I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have anything against ebooks. I own a first-generation Kindle, and sometimes I even use it. But it’s almost always easier and more pleasurable for me to read a book. My attachment to them is pragmatic, and not just aesthetic or sentimental (though it is both of those things as well). As Nicholas Carr writes:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Maybe some day the ebook will become as versatile as the book. I rather suspect it will just become a different kind of medium with its own advantages and idiosyncracies. The book will remain the book: disposable for some, not so much for others.

That’s all the justification I need for keeping libraries open and well-stocked. If a statistically significant slice of the population still finds it easier and more pleasurable to read a physical book than an ebook, taxpayers should accommodate them. After all, the whole reason we have libraries is to increase everyone’s ease of access to information. For quite a few folks, gleaning that information from ink and paper is still easier than squinting at a screen.

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One Response

  1. With books — if you’re a serious reader — the biggest inconvenience may be storage. I have nine bookcases and it’s not enough. So floorpiles it is.

    All of those Carrian advantages — except the ability to annotate; that’s a sine qua non — would be vitiated by the capacities to copypaste and search. I’m so used to being able to do it my brain overheats when I’m looking for something in a printed book and can’t just hit CTRL+F. Do ebooks do that?

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